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Retail Shopping - Back To The Future - But With A Difference

Written by: Ned K. on 25 April 2020


The impact of the Corona Virus has caused stagnation in some parts of the capitalist economy and acceleration in others. One example of the latter is in sections of the retail industry.
As a small child before I started going to school, I can remember the milkman, baker and greengrocer stopping at our home in a then outer city suburb. Home delivery was the way for basic food staples such as milk, bread vegetables and basic grocery items. The local butcher for eggs and meat was just round the corner. The greengrocer used to arrive in a truck with a canopy on the back. Mum would just walk out the front gate and buy direct what was needed. There was the occasional need for Mum to walk about 2 kms to the nearest tram stop and go the city to buy items not stocked by the greengrocer who came down our street every second day of the working week.
With the dominance of the motor car as the main form of transport, shopping centres started to dominate the retail market forcing the home delivery system out of business.

Over the decades, the shopping centres got bigger and bigger and the distances working families had to drive to a shopping centre for every item you can think of got longer and longer as urban sprawl occurred at amazing speed.

Then the internet enabled online shopping and home delivery. At first internet shopping appealed to capitalists who sold nonperishable goods from televisions to garden tools to books. US multinational Amazon led the way with home deliveries of these type of goods. With competition in retail supermarket trade in Australia with the arrival of companies like Aldi to compete with Coles and Woolworths, in particular, online shopping and home delivery competition spread to the perishable goods market.

The restriction on people's movements and social distancing has seen an explosion in online shopping and home deliveries. As capitalism destroyed check out assistants’ jobs in supermarkets through self-serve, it created new jobs in warehousing and home delivery drivers.

2020 is very much "back to the future" regarding retail shopping patterns. The Australian Financial Review of 23 April reported that Woolworths has doubled its online capacity by opening up a "pop up delivery hub" in Notting Hill in Melbourne. It has converted one of its liquor division warehouses in to a massive warehouse and pick up station for its new fleet of home delivery drivers.

However, unlike the home delivery baker of decades ago, these home delivery drivers are not directly employed. Woolworths has "enlisted" (a euphemism for contracted out) last mile delivery companies "Sherpa" and "Drive Yello" who have "signed up" (ABN self-employed with no basic worker rights) more than 5,000 drivers for increased demand! The contractors have to guarantee delivery no later than next day to maintain their contracts and a customer can order online up to forty items per delivery.

The supermarket corporations will undoubtedly be doing their profit sums to see if the acceleration of home delivery market is worth them promoting beyond the Corona Virus crisis. While petrol prices remain low, many people may still prefer the journey to the car parks of the crowded shopping centres. Or are we seeing the last decade of the shopping centres due to online shopping? If so, there is an opportunity for local community shopping strips to spring up which are based not on consumerism for consumerism's sake but a reclaiming of public space for people to mix and socialise.

Shopping centres have privatised public space as the malls through which people trudge to get to a retail shop and are the private property of the likes of Westfields. Years ago, when Mum went out in the street to buy vegetables from the greengrocer in his van, she and the neighbours met and talked in the "commons" of the public street. So maybe the end of shopping centres will not be a bad thing after all!



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