From Neo-Dickens to Retail Reset

Melancholy streets, in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look at them out of windows, in dire despondency.’ 

Little Dorrit, 1845


The feeling on the streets of London of 150-odd years ago, brought to life by the modern, vivid observations of Charles Dickens, the bicentenary-celebrating social raconteur par excellence, could just as well belong to our own era.

But these days the soot has been replaced by a different kind of pea-souper that has a similar spiritual effect on you and I, our towns and cities’ protagonists. In fact, this new artery clogging gunk has spread its coronary-inducing molasses across the world in the form of hulking, soulless & deathly big retail and its ‘consume at all costs’ mantra.

Currently, big retail’s hold on us is as emotionally disturbing as it is economically depressing. From the lobotomy inducing, identikit mediocrity of chain store misery and shopping mall oblivion – where, in pursuit of another purchase, customer discombobulation is finessed with forensic aplomb, to the credo of hyperconsumption above all else (like, say, solvency, health or love), it seems like we’re enveloped in a thick, melancholy, life-sucking smog. And today, what was once a trusted engine of the economy and the thriving heart of our communities has become truly hazardous for our health.



In these lost-decade tinged days, big retail is a roll-call for declinism worthy of Dickensian treatment. Ghost malls, boarded up shops, obesity pandemics, narcissism epidemics, crass luxury, slavish product fetichization, bonded labour, faceless fat cat financiers and plagues of usury – it’s got makings of a bestseller. What’s worse is that in its present guise, mutually assured destruction is all but guaranteed as we confront the ultimate catch-22. For on the one hand, we want the global economy to pick up thereby boosting consumer confidence and spending, and in so doing feeding the big retail pile up in-waiting. Alternatively, we watch on powerless, as the life get sucked out of our towns and cities by clueless captains of industry and their backers, liquidating whats left of their crumbling sector.

In the end, it’s no wonder that the planet, the economy and society are convulsing on so many fronts. We are having a coronary the likes of which we have never witnessed before as this neo-Dickensien dystopia plays out its endgame.

Hence, I think that escaping big retail’s necrotic embrace – a 21st century, planet-wide debtors prison as depressing and eternal as Little Dorrit’s Marshalsea – must be our top priority. It’s time to apply the defibrillators and reset retail so that it works for you and me and helps us make a radical departure from the defunct compact to which we hopelessly cling.


Steps to escape the chokehold


I think we must reinvent the very essence of retail, helping it to escape the clogging drudgery of infinite moribund transactions to re-emerge as a part of our world that is geared up to give us more. Its singular ambition must graduate from parochial stuff-pushing, to one that is all about furnishing us with the tools and skills that we need to take on today’s frightening challenges with the verve, gusto and passion that they demand. And if we can achieve this, retail will become the beating heart of a human economy, unlocking the wealth, potential and intent that resides in all of us but is presently asphyxiated by an outmoded raison d’etre.

Here are 4 simple reset steps that retail can take to begin its journey, save our cities and help us flourish:


1. Unleash our creativity: We’ve come hurtling out of the industrial age into an era that asks for more creative answers from us at every turn. Real world retailers needs to catch up with an effervescent digital realm by showcasing their own creativity and helping us tap into ours. Championing craft and ‘making’ with real world possibilities can add untold worth to much denigrated conceptions of place and space. Equally, adding actual texture to new digital creative waves will help ensure this newly unlocked ocean of potential does not go to waste.


2. Give us experiences: When was the last time you were delighted or surprised on your shopping trip? Not only do we want (and, by the way, are willing to pay for) experiences over stuff, but boosting wellbeing, happiness and satisfaction – after a failed experiment in trying to dupe us into buying more stuff – will always be at the core of retail’s philosophy. Don’t ever pay for another soul-crushing advertisement. Spend the money on truly wowing your customers.


3. Help us connect: Helping people get together, be they pioneers on the edges of enterprise or enthusiasts with a passion, is a central tenet of 21st century prosperity creation. Retail space can become the real world workshop of a revived human economy where makerspaces, meetups and hackdays are as normal a feature of everyday shopping life as the perma-sales that linger forever in today’s Temples of Doom.


4. Teach us more: For us to truly thrive, next generation learning can no longer be confined to the classroom. Retail must play its part. So, where are the amphitheatres with round the clock lectures? Or, the total immersion journeys plying me with info about about products and places? Why are there no start-up concessions dotted about shop floors where passionate entrepreneurs are teaching me new skills, opening my mind to never before considered possibilities?  Give us more nourishment and we will come back.


Meet the radical innovators


You’ll probably agree that retail as-you-know-it is nowhere near any of the above. And you may even consider that what I’ve outlined is pure fantasy. I’d suggest you think again: around the world radical innovators are carving out a rich seam of niches left for them in what was once big retail’s realm. Like the 3-d printing makers marketplace Ponoko, the global clothes swopping movement swishing, the rebranded recycling of the Swap-o-matic, the experiential antics of Punchdrunk theatre andSecret Cinema, the burgeoning maker space scene and vibrant pop-up culture populated by the likes of Betahaus and the Library Lab, radical transparency apps like Open Retail, p2p micro courses offered by The Amazings and mini libraries in Madrid’s metro station. These pioneering endeavours are but a microscopic fraction of what it going on out there at the bustling, frontier of an economy that is being refound. For big retail, (re)learning from them about what it takes to become indispensable, cherished and brilliant will hopefully be a humbling and revolutionary process.

Hopefully you’ll see by now that what we are trying to achieve isn’t merely a seasonal uptick in footfall or a Black Friday-like fillip. What is at stake here is the way we create prosperity and retool ourselves for the 21st century. In fact, if it has the guts to press the reset button, retail should find that it is in the box seat of the construction of an emerging infrastructure of a more human economy.


Sharper relief


And there is another prize that might well focus the mind even more. For perhaps advanced nations’ most significant gift to their fast growing peers has not been nanotechnology or the Internet but actually this culture of consumption fronted by big retail that, now embedded in these new poles, is travelling at warp speed. And while the oversize, once-in-a-lifetime profits may whet the lips of myopic managers and anonymous owners, the impact of this untrammelled explosion of stuff-pushing – if retail is not reset –  will send shockwaves of Dickensian misery around the around the world. Forget a lost ½ decade. The planet, the economy and our society will not regain its feet after this one. For after a final hurrah (a party reserved for Davos gold card holders to which you wont be invited) – we will have depleted any remaining wealth left on the planet. Biophysically, economically and spiritually, we will be truly bankrupt.

And though it may turn out to be correct that product and service innovation that tackles mounting environmental and socioeconomic problems will probably come from these new centers of economic dynamism, without a reset of the philosophy of retail’s purpose, these incremental shuffles will be a nothing more than deckchair arranging.

Britain moved on from the bleak depravity of the Victorian age, so vividly portrayed in Dickens’ body of work, through a series of institutional shifts brought about thanks to the work of tireless radicals. Together they changed mindsets, ushering in a modern era with innovations such as such as the sewer network, the elementary education act and the end of debtors prisons.

Our challenge is global. But if we are prepared to make similar, path breaking maneuvers, and follow in the footsteps of the radical innovators who are already injecting creativity, experiences, collaboration and learning into 21st century life, we too have this within our reach. We can reset retail so that it becomes the thriving heart of a human economy.

A final word of caution with a nod to Victorian struggles. This is a generational project that wont happen overnight. The Clean Air Act – which rid London of its smog – was only passed in 1956 some 100 years after the publication of Dickens’ Little Dorrit.