Highs & lows street

Today I had to do a lot of business with various companies on “the high street” and was struck by just how far we’ve come with remediating the Internet back into physical shops.

Beyond all the obvious stuff about unexpected items in bagging areas, and outside of the economic discussion about cost cutting that leads to all of this, high street shopping feels to me more and more like clicks than bricks. All those automated systems, all that lack of human agency, reduces much of the process to the same user experience as online shopping (but with the hassle of leaving the house).

Argos in particular (and it always was a strange place) has now managed to remove 50% of the human interaction by not having a human on the tills at all: the only person you see is the person who does the final mile (or rather, metre) delivery to you. You go in, make an order through a computer, put your card into the computer then wait for delivery. They essentially have their own private postal service that fulfils your Internet order (that you placed a few yards away, minutes before). But Argos isn’t worth worrying about too much as it was always a weird place, as I said, that didn’t really ever offer a shopping “experience” in the sense of a way to seek advice and discuss problems that might be fulfilled by the available inventory.

I visited a cinema today too where the increased levels of automation is more pronounced and more problematic. Cinema’s defence to all home consumption (but especially unauthorised distribution of films during their initial release) is experiential — “experience it at the cinema!” they cry — and yet the experience now is often delivered without human contact except for ticket checks. Ticket checks themselves are scarce, there being a peculiar trust system that seems to operate now. Maybe I’m just weird, but feeling like I’m walking around through a process I can do in the iTunes Store isn’t an experience.

The weirdest thing in this redesign of high street along Internet customer journeys is the stuff that goes down at the till when you’re lucky enough to find one manned by a human. This is when the insincere recommendation engine kicks in. It’s not an honest thing that a good shop assistant might do (“hey that thing runs on AAs. Do you need some?”) but a programmed set of checkout routines that need to be processed before the card goes through. This isn’t Amazon’s “people who bought that also bought” this is the airline industry’s “choose your seat now – £9.99”; it’s an optional extra offered as a default purchase: a big bar of chocolate, some bottled water, cookies with your fuel, cuddly toy…

And no I don’t need AA batteries with this Lego set.

Note: I found this old post down the back of my metaphorical sofa, in a local draft on my phone. So while this didn’t happen ‘today’ it’s still valid.

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Jon Hickman

Hi, I'm Jon. I teach and research digital culture, social media and new media practice at Birmingham City University. Find out more about me with this lovely CV: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/jonhickman Find out about my work at the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research: http://interactivecultures.org