“Round to your left, please!”
There are ways of saying ‘please’, which vary from earnest entreaty to thinly-disguised threat. This is the latter.
“Did you order online?”
She stands in command of her little empire of plastic bollards and fake crime tape, stockily built, belligerent and enjoying the anonymity of her paper mask.
“Do you have documentation? In through this door and go to station 2.”
The image of state authority passes through my mind as I obediently follow the painted lines on the floor. “Your papers! What is your destination? Why?”
Inside the emporium, I am told to remain standing on a yellow square. I do so, making a mental note to never use this ‘click and collect’ service again. Probably, I will avoid using this store again. I have the possibly illogical notion that if I am ever to catch the benighted virus, it will be here. It will float into my respiratory system on a cloud of vitriol.
‘Station 2’ Comes up with my merchandise and allows me to collect it from the counter while ‘Station 2’ hides behind her perspex screen. The items are loose, four little germ hives that rebuke me for failing to think of my rubber gloves. I depart.
Retreating to the safety of my car and my sanitizer, having run the gauntlet of a purchase that the retailer was so anxious I should make, I reflect that the traumatising nature of the transaction is not so much the fault of the retailer as it is the fault of staff who would rather not deliver this so-tight-the-pips-squeak routine, who, in fact, would rather not be there at all.
This is an outlet for a big company, of course; a concern with branches nationwide. Edicts are issued from on high, executed (i can think of no more appropriate word) by those who see themselves as minions and to whom the paper mask has afforded the benefit of disguise.
As I drive home I realise that I have been privileged to witness the death of the ‘retail experience’ as we know it. The end of the Mall, of the High Street with its punitive overheads, its regimentation. Lockdown has given us all a freedom which, having experienced, we should be anxious to preserve.
Here’s the tragedy. This authoritarian solution is likely to become distinctly a big company drag shoe administered from well-heeled boardrooms with no appreciation of the latent enmity that exists between staff at floor level and their customers. Now there are masks. Now any element of personal contact has been eliminated. Now we can say what we THINK! It is not a philosophy shared by those dwindling ranks of independent retailers who have a genuine interest and would like to offer a friendly, warm avenue of communication with those who walk through their door; but they are the ones who will suffer most from the collapse of ‘Retail Therapy’.
High Streets and Malls, gang-raped by the big corporations, were in trouble long before COVID came to call. Malls do not make money. Pillaged by rents and business rates they are the biters bit. Recently those on the High Streets have done no better. Only banks can be relied upon to make profits.
Of those who have passed their isolation working from home, four out of five have expressed their preference for continuing to work from home. The removal of restrictions should mean a mass migration back into the town, a human tidal wave of relieved shoppers grateful the siege has been lifted. It has not. Apart from essential travel, we seem reluctant to return to the bean-can life. If a vaccine is not quickly found, perhaps we never will.
A personal opinion? We could be standing at the threshold of something massive. There is clearly a need for some centralisation, but not as much – a need for towns (cities) – but not as many. Maybe the twentieth-century commute is a thing of the past, the big office no longer an eight-hour prison sentence at the hub of each day. Does the nursery belong in the home, rather than at some converted church hall or school? And are the icons of the education industry ripe for scattering, now they are so much a source of foment for rebellion and unrest?
Photo credit: Joe Stubbs on Unsplash