Walking through the local mega-mall, I was struck by the dynamics. As has long been the case, the place was teeming with the shoperati of Canberra. The same families with 2.5 kids. The gaggles of teenagers. The shuffling older couples. All accounted for.
Having sucked the life out of the nearby shopping strip, the place retains its status as the place to be on a cold and windy Saturday.
Everything as it should be. The generally high-paid community going about the business of honouring their good fortune.
Reclining in the buzzing food court, I swiped up another article warning of the decline in retail. The headline screamed blue murder. The copy plotted an eerie and inevitable death for tens of thousands of small businesses.
The big players, they were going down in spectacular fashion. It was going to be carnage.
Being a web guy, I am immediately attracted to such doom and gloom. The usual suspect is the internet. It’s smashing the shops. This, as you might imagine, is great for business. Indeed, in the week prior I had sat across from two retailers as they somewhat uncomfortably enquired about my wares.
I am sympathetic to their plight. These are highly successful retailers with decades of strong growth. They are a masters of their trades. Highly adept at the fundamentals of margin, cash-flow, inventory control, and profit, they are now asked to deal with foreign concepts with shiny new names.
They had been driven to my door by a steady decline in sales. Scratching their heads, they had read the news (oh boy) and they had to get online pronto.
So, all good for a web guy. Even the Treasurer is telling them to get their butts into online gear.
But, I am wondering if it is so straightforward. Am I the new miracle worker? With a stroke of my cyber-pen, all will be well again.
Or is there another explanation?
Which brings me back to Saturday afternoon in the palace of consumer dreams.
Like a revelation from on high, my eyes were wiped clean and I could see. What I saw was as plain as any burning bush.
Yes, the place was packed. A car-park was as elusive as it had ever been. But, when I looked closely I saw a hidden truth.
The shops were empty. They were deserted. The Body Shop, usually a bastion of busyness was as barren as a pork butcher in Jerusalem.
The bookstore, well it isn’t there anymore. It closed down a few weeks back. It would have been a good gauge. People hang in bookstores.
My OCD kicked in. I had to investigate this further. Could I have stumbled on the physical manifestation of this somewhat intangible death of retail?
In an orderly fashion, I staked out the places I know to be magnets for the wallets of the garden variety public servant. The big electronics sellers did have some hardy folks in play but nowhere as much as I would expect.
The big discounters, normally teeming with bargain hunters, were not without shoppers but nothing like the numbers in the good old days.
A quick tour of the smaller shops revealed a ghost land. You could imagine tumbleweeds sweeping across the standard-issue floorboards.
Bored and shuffling shop assistants were taken by surprise by my mere presence. A customer, you could almost hear them exclaim.
Taking several vantage points I was able to observe a distinct lack of products walking out doors. The consumer was empty-handed. The few that were venturing inside shops were exiting sans stuff.
So, I ask myself, are we seeing the end of stuff?
Are we witnessing the end of the age of stuff?
Once that thought entered my mind, it started to make sense. Real sense. It could be true.
Reflecting on my consuming is not going to be much help. I signed up years ago to what is known as Voluntary Simplicity. I kicked my stuff habit by simply deciding not to buy stuff. I had what I needed and decided that I did not need anymore. In the past decade I have brought a TV but only when my old one blew up. My car is more than ten years old. It works just fine. It does the A to B perfectly well.
So, research amongst my friends was called for. Sure enough, my theory is starting to stack up. People have stopped buying stuff as much as they used to.
Looking around their houses you can see some hints on why this has happened. They have the flat screen (or two). They have the Blu-Ray. The whitegoods are in place. The furniture is perfectly fine.
In the garage, the car(s) are aging gracefully.
And that is the point, perhaps.
The stuff we brought years ago look just like the stuff in the shops and does pretty much the same things.
There is just not much to upgrade to.
Just as I was processing the findings of my highly scientific research, I was struck by the news that Apple had become the most valuable company on the planet.
That resonates with me. I am writing this on my brand new Mac Air – a wonder to behold. Weighing no more than a few feathers but ten times as fast as the computer I used ten years ago, it is an engineering marvel.
Just to my left is my brand new IPad. The sleek cage for my Angry Birds. I love it way beyond what a man should love a product.
Then there is my IPhone. I thought I lost it a few weeks back and I had my first ever serious panic attack. It was a feeling not unlike that I felt when I lost my youngest in the mall when she was five.
So, leaving aside my TV, all my purchases over the past decade has been from one company.
It’s not hard to explain. Apple has consistently delivered completely new stuff.
I am predicting that they may have reached the beginning of their end as well. I can’t imagine what new thing they are going to offer me that will entice me to part with my hard-earned.
I am calling it. I declare that we are seeing the end of stuff.