The Slow Death of Traditional Commerce

I recently took a chance to go to downtown Lisbon on my own and take care of some X-mas shopping and run some errands. It had been impossible to pick and get the rest of kitten’s X-mas present without him knowing what it is. “Quest complete.”

There’s nearly zero chance to watch the news without catching something about the economic crysis. The media talk about it so much in fact that most of the time I prefer reading the news on online papers instead of following the TV versions, so I can skip the articles with ad nauseum repetition. We already got it. “The Euro is dying”, “Europe is failing”, and “people don’t have money”. Really, media people, enough already.

Even the damned report I saw about the X-Mas purchases didn’t get behind the scenes enough to show what else is going on. Asking people passing by the stores how they are managing this year’s purchases is the lazy way of getting what they see as journalism done.

While I was taking my downtown trip, I entered a bazaar where among other things, modelling paints and accessories were sold. While browsing the store, I heard the lady saying on the phone how they’d only sold 12 euros worth of things that day (it was almost noon) and how she had been having lunch in the store hoping to sell something extra in that time. The bazaar, one of the few traditional stores dedicated to toys still left in downtown, will close soon I’m sure. A toy store can’t sell during the X-Mas season is as good as dead.

Then I went to a store which was mostly selling X-mas items. A lot of other potential customers were in the store, all of them foreigners. The store lady who makes a sale gives me a look I can only describe as being of ‘thankful relief’ and wishes me great holidays. As I pay, I ask the lady behind the counter how are the sales going this year. “Even though we’re focusing on X-Mas items, and get a lot of people inside the store, most of them just go back out without a single purchase.”

It’s true that traditional commerce has failed in adapting to the rhythm people’s lives have nowadays. Most of us don’t get off work in time to get to the stores and still find them open, and a lot of stores close during lunch so they miss out on the potential customers going there on their lunch breaks. They even miss out on a lot of the customers they’d get during the weekend and holidays as they are closed most of those times. Also, the prices they practice are often higher than the prices on store chains because they can’t buy the items in bulk like the large retailers do.

All of this is working against traditional commerce. People prefer going to crowded malls to do their shopping. Even though the stores there lack originality and seem to have the same items available over and over. Even though the store people there don’t really care – it’s not their store, “so why should I care?” – and often aren’t as helpful as those in traditional commerce. Even though they’ll end up dressing like everyone else, have their house decorated like everyone else’s, eat what everyone else eats, go where everyone else goes and do what everyone else does. Didn’t you hear? Become like everyone else and you can pretend to ‘fit in’. Get with the program!

These stores are caught in a case of Adapt or die.

Old fashioned stores in general are not adapting so they’re disappearing one by one. Some of my best memories are of going to downtown OPorto with my grandmother, see the sights, and eat at some traditional bakery we’d find along the way. Give it a few more years and there won’t be much of a chance to do that.

Some of the people who work in old fashioned stores are adapting, but unless something more changes, it’s too late for their businesses. The times they are a-changin’.


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