PAYING FOR OUR PREY

By John Rushton

For the past two and a half million years we have been hunter-gatherers. We would go out equipped for hunting animals to eat, with spears, arrows and nets. We would gather nuts berries and greens with baskets and bags.

But then we learnt to farm and to trade. Other people did the hunting and gathering … we bartered or exchanged money in return for fresh meat, fish, grain, vegetables and fruit.

It wasn’t long before other traders brought things they had made to market … baskets, tools, weapons, furniture, products, things we needed, things we didn’t need, but wanted. Things we neither needed or wanted!

The retail economy was born. Shopping was with us.

Markets grew up in the centres of towns and villages. Traders flocked to them, knowing that they could sell their wares to the townspeople. Mobility was relatively limited, so only the rich could travel far for their goods.

Canals and railways made dramatic differences to the goods we could buy. Eventually department stores flourished in town centres, and then came their successors: shopping centres. These were still generally in-town, accessible on foot for residents. The individual mode of transport, the car, became more generally available, and shopping centres went to the edge- or out-of-town, bringing about seemingly irreversible changes to our town centres.

It is true that many goods and services were better provided for by these edge-of-town ‘category killers’ and shops in town centres closed. This has been more of an obvious pattern in the US where the Wal-Mart, Costco and Kroger have killed town centre retail.

In the UK names like Woolworths and BHS disappeared and currently House of Fraser is said to be finding it difficult to retain its niche in the market*. We also lost local purveyors of quality products - to be replaced by charity shops, cafes, betting shops and boarded up units. The internet exasperated this erosion of the town centre and currently it’s affecting retail at both ends of the market.

But a new realisation of retail positioning is dawning.  Shopping is either hunting or gathering.

Hunting is fast, gathering is slow.

Hunting retail is about going out to find big-ticket items. Hunters look for fast moving animals and flashes of light. So to hunt for goods we’ll go to the big edge-of-town and out-of-town centres. This is where the activity always is. Now we’ll go to the West End for the movement, the colours, the lights and the hive of activity. Here the colours are brighter and adrenalin flows. “Here is where the bargains are!”

We’ll hunt for what we want, for ourselves or for presents. We might complete the purchase when we’re there if it’s a time sensitive item or we might shop around on the internet from an armchair. But we source the goods in a hunting frame of mind and that’s very different from gathering.