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Artillery Row

Virtual insanity

Has online shopping gone too far?

I received a press release the other day that made me groan. Then I received another one, and I groaned again. They came from two different clothing retailers, both reaching out to the fashion press and absolutely fizzing with excitement about their new high-tech offerings — offerings that promised to provide customers with a unique, “truly interactive” shopping experience. 

They told of two new applications for phones, tablets and laptops that let you try on clothes virtually, all with a simple visit to a website and click of a button instead of going to the shops. Great, I thought. Very impressive! Who found it so inconvenient and annoying to go to the shop in the first place?

We’re not yet living on Mars trying to remotely engage with retailers on Earth

That’s the actual meaning of “truly interactive” after all. It is proper interaction with objects in the world. This is indispensable when you’re shopping for clothes. It’s feeling the fabric of a jumper between your fingers to see how thick it is and how likely it is to keep you warm throughout the cost of living crisis; it’s putting a scarf around your neck to see if it feels scratchy on your skin or if it feels snug; it’s putting a beanie on your head to check that it doesn’t make your face look like an egg. It’s even going around smelling the high-quality leather of a luxury pair of brogues, if that’s what floats your boat. That’s actual interaction. That’s actual shopping. That’s actual life. Not clicking buttons and staring at screens.

Don’t misunderstand me. The tech is amazing. To have created a service that lets you take a photo, fill in a few details about your body shape and then scroll through a brand’s collection with your face and body displayed in all the clothes is no mean feat. It’s just … well, completely pointless. We’re not yet living on Mars trying to remotely engage with retailers on Earth. 

One can’t blame the companies entirely. Brands respond to what the market likes. The market seems to lap up online shopping. Surely, then, doing something to enhance the online shopping process will be a sensible commercial move. It probably is. Indeed, many of you readers must be dedicated online shoppers, never deigning to set foot in a shop. You’re probably thrilled to hear of this technology I’m ranting about — but I just can’t understand it at all. Didn’t all that time spent cooped up during national lockdowns frustrate you? Doesn’t it wind you up — ordering clothes you’ve only seen a picture of, waiting for them to arrive, opening the extensive packaging, inevitably finding that they’re not quite right and then sending them back, over and over again? Isn’t being at one remove from the garments a bit irritating? 

Perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps I’m getting my free-return knickers in a twist over nothing, but I do wish everyone would just go to the bloody shops. Go out and try things on and find clothes that fit your unique body shape — those long arms or that short neck or the ample glutes you’ve been torturing in the gym.

By choosing to do everything online, we strip our communities of life

The most infuriating thing for old codgers like me is that when you do go to actual shops today, the few that can still be found surviving on the high street don’t bother to carry much stock. If you ask for a specific item in a specific size that they don’t happen to have, they’re more likely to tell you to go home and shop online than to order it in for you. Well, why not? Why would they get in large amounts of stock when so many of their customers are besotted with the online shopping experience? Why have a stockroom that needs filling and cleaning and keeping in order, when the majority of buyers prefer to scroll and click and pass the parcel? 

I make no secret of the fact that I’m an introverted type who loves nothing more than to shun the crowd, but even I can see that replacing all of our real experiences with virtual ones is not good for us. A chat bot on a shop’s website is not a living, breathing shop assistant, no matter how good the AI is, or how charming that winking emoji may be. 

Dehumanising everyday existence is bad news, both on the individual and the community level. As we let more and more shops shut by choosing to do everything online, we strip our communities of life. I’m not trying to say that those thriving high streets and suburban shopping centres of the recent past were quite Morris dancing on the village green and taking tea with the vicar. Nor were UK malls ever quite like those across the pond: glamorous hang-outs for teens and valley girls and the like. In fact, you’d probably have been moved on for loitering if you’d tried that here. They were, nonetheless, centres of human activity and places that brought people together in a natural way. This is something we should not lose. 

Everyone has become so enamoured of virtual technology and the amazing things it can do that they forget that real life is still available. We’re entering an era of virtual insanity. I just hope the fabric of our society won’t unravel. 

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