When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, some shopping geographies had difficulties while others proved to be more resilient. Devrim Umut Aslan discusses what we can learn from these resilient places.
A global pandemic hit the world, radically changing how shoppers shop and how they move around in cities. Sweden’s handling of the pandemic had been rather ‘relaxed’; it had not enforced any strict lock-downs, which had kept urban life afloat, and most retailers open. Yet, some shopping geographies had difficulties during the pandemic, while some weathered the storm better than the others. These places proved to be more resilient against such crisis situations and the drastic changes they bring.
What can we learn from this pandemic about creating more resilient shopping geographies? How can shopping destinations, town-centres handle future crises better? What is a resilient shopping geography?
Can shopping make a street resilient?
Last June I defended my dissertation project, entitled Praxitopia: how shopping makes a street vibrant. For that project, I studied shopping activities on a local shopping street in Helsingborg. The fieldwork was already complete when the corona virus came to Sweden but , yet, my dissertation contains answers to the questions posed above. Because it was about defining and studying a resilient shopping geography, and finding out about its qualities and dynamics.
A vibrant shopping geography: Södergatan
Södergatan, the main street of the stigmatised, multicultural, working-class district of Söder, in Helsingborg, had been portrayed as a problematic shopping geography in the local media. However, my initial observations did not match these: there were always people on the street, many of whom seem to frequent the stores on the street. In addition, there were not many vacant retail places, and the empty ones were quickly filled by new retailers. Wanting to understand this curious contradiction was my entrance into the fieldwork. Soon into my PhD research I also realised that there is a lack of knowledge in the literature concerning shopping activities on the local streets of mid-sized cities like Helsingborg. The majority of the scholarly work done focuses on the retailer side, on the architectural organisation of the streets, generally investigating local streets in larger global cities, which have peculiar dynamics and conditions.
There are thousands of local streets like Södergatan all around the world; the everyday shopping geographies of ordinary towns where ‘common people’ meet, greet, connect, disconnect, avoid, update each other, learn and perform differences, where they fulfil some of their basic needs, run their daily errands. We need to know more about such shopping geographies. Despite the fact that the retail in these everyday landscapes seems to survive the social and economic transformations pretty well, we seldom are curious about them. We think they are old-school, inglorious, unfashionable, ordinary, as if they belong to the past, thus, would not have a place in the future. But, maybe the future of retail and town-centres is hidden in the past, disguised in the present?
A good mix of modes of shopping
After an expansive video-ethnographic study on Södergatan and in Söder, I ultimately identified five major modes of shopping, which together constituted the shopping geography’s vibrancy. As distinct ways of enacting shopping, as I frame them, these are ‘convenience shopping’, ‘on-the-side shopping’, ‘social shopping’, ‘alternative shopping’, and ‘budget shopping:
- Convenience shopping consists of activities that may lead to the purchasing of mostly everyday services and goods, being encouraged by the spatial and temporal availability and the experienced accessibility. It largely relies on minimising the physical and mental efforts in the process, e.g. by means of nearness, generous opening hours, and overall ease. In particular, it is the feeling of enjoyment deriving from the luxury of not needing to plan shopping which gives convenience shopping its main orientation.
- Social shopping, on the other hand, contains activities which encourage social interaction and interpersonal cohesion among fellow shoppers and retail workers, something which, during the process, can lead to the purchasing of services or goods. The mode of shopping was enacted often in cosy, convivial atmospheres, at a slow speed. It is primarily about longing for intimacy, togetherness, and community-building while shopping, in otherwise anonymous cities.
- On-the-side shopping contains activities which could semi-spontaneously lead to the purchasing of services and goods in a shopping geography, where the original intention behind arriving there is something other than shopping. Thus, shopping is enacted ‘on-the-side’ of an array of everyday work- and ‘leisure’-related events and activities, such as participating in cultural events, having some business to attend to at a formal institution, either going to or coming from work or school, or changing from one mode of public transportation to another.
- Alternative shopping, according to my research, is composed of activities which may lead to purchasing of unique services and goods, which are excluded from mainstream shopping geographies. It is often enacted in ‘alternative’ retail places, diverging from the ‘here’ and ‘now’, in the sense that shopping services and goods brought from distant lands, or resurrected from the past. The driving force behind this mode of shopping is wanting and enjoying these heterodox, unusual, and deviant services, goods and retail places.
- Budget shopping concerns activities that may lead to the purchase of cheaper services and goods primarily due to being on a limited budget. Shoppers need to accumulate knowledge of the multiplicity of prices both inside and outside a shopping geography, and they are also required to have delicate skills when it comes to engaging in trade-offs. Enactments of budget shopping are also accompanied by feelings of joy, satisfaction, and pride.
A vibrant shopping geography is a resilient and adaptive shopping geography, which in turn needs to enable, assist, encourage, and maintain multiple modes of shopping, modes which are bundled and cemented together. The secret behind Södergatan’s liveliness was, thus, it assisted, encouraged and maintained these abovementioned five modes of shopping.
Södergatan after the pandemic
I paid a visit to Södergatan last week again. There were some changes since I completed my fieldwork. However, as I expected, neither Södergatan nor Söder was dead. Although ‘infected’ by the virus, the shopping geography was surviving yet another crisis nicely. It was transforming slowly, adapting itself to new circumstances. It is a resilient shopping geography because it supports a good mix of modes of shopping. If on-the-side shopping and social shopping were affected badly during the pandemic, the shopping geography could still rely on the others.
Managing town centres
While discussing and ‘managing’ town centre retail, shopping places should not be solely evaluated in terms of the revenue they generate or the jobs they create, but jointly with their sociocultural importance and implications. In the same vein, instead of focusing on rather static categories, e.g. the overall architectural aesthetic, parking facilities, security measures, cleanliness, the retail mix or homogeneous place identities when assessing the attractiveness or resilience of a shopping geography, a more important criterion to look into would be the ‘shopping mix’, i.e. the bundle of modes of shopping that the districts, streets, and town centres enable, encourage, assist, and maintain.
The basic practical implication of my study is a paradigm shift towards a ‘shopping-oriented logic’, so to speak, while developing policies concerning town centres. The questions we should ask are: What kind of modes of shopping do we want a shopping geography to assist and encourage? How can we make sure that town centres have a good mix of shopping? How can we reinforce the existing ones while inviting absent others?
Devrim Umut Aslan, Centrum för handelsforskning