21 Nov 2017
By Marianne Taylor, The Herald
Is there a more glorious sight than Glasgow’s Buchanan Street on a crisp, sunny Saturday in the lead-up to Christmas? I found myself thinking this at the weekend as I stood next to the statue of Donald Dewar and looked down – admittedly with rather more excitement than the monument to the late former first minister can muster – upon this prime stretch of retail heaven.
Bustling with shoppers laden with carrier bags, buzzing with buskers, street entertainers and tourists snapping away, the atmosphere was terrific. The handsome sandstone buildings gleamed in the afternoon sun, and as dusk descended the fairy lights decorating Princes Square and Frasers twinkled against a cobalt blue sky.
Some folk reading this piece may already be rolling their eyes and preparing to launch into a rant about the over-commercialisation of Christmas, the manipulation used by big corporations to control the habits of a sheep-like public.
But, in these most savage and uncertain of times, I reckon hitting the high street in the lead-up to Christmas is as comforting as carol singers, advent calendars and mince pies, a rare shared experience, one that feeds our social and cultural identity.
Like many things, I suppose it all goes back to childhood. Granted, the pre-Christmas buzz started a bit later then, but going shopping with my mother and grandmother, saving my pocket money to buy presents for loved ones and imagining their faces as they opened them, looking at the Christmas lights, eating snowballs and drinking hot chocolate in the British Homes Stores cafe, stand out as some of my happiest childhood moments.
And in our increasingly isolated digital world, surely it’s more important than ever to take part in these shared moments that can make lifelong memories?
Even if you don’t have much money to spend, the inter-generational social experience, the atmosphere and lights, cost nothing.
And as much as I embrace so many aspects of the aforementioned digital world, one part of it that I continue to reject is internet shopping. I know, I know, I’m probably costing myself money since all the good bargains are online. But who wants to sit glued to a screen looking at boring internet sites when you could be out and about, soaking up the atmosphere, meeting friends and family, and even getting a bit of exercise and fresh air? And since online shopping can never even begin to match the experience offered by the high street, I’ll continue to give it a miss, thanks very much.
I realise this way of thinking probably makes me seem like a bit of a Luddite, and even a hypocrite. After all, I use a smartphone and a tablet in most other spheres of my life, I buy flights and music online. But, if the heaving Glasgow streets on Saturday was anything to go by, the long queues at the cash registers, the restaurants and cafes having to turn away diners because they were full, I’m clearly not the only one who still enjoys the real deal shopping experience.
In some ways I feel a bit squeamish about the rampant commercialism that one cannot avoid at this time of year, but another part of me realises in order to see the Scottish economy expand and flourish, taking pleasure in the pinging high street tills is a must.
It’s important to remember that shopping till we drop locally benefits us all. Rather than being stuck in the past, those of us who stick to the high street are actually looking to the future, in that we’re choosing to bolster our local communities and spread our wealth more widely than online shoppers. And with retailers currently experiencing the worst clothes and home sales on record, the high street needs our help.
It’s in our shared interest to help, of course. Shopping is a leisure activity in itself, but it is also part of a much bigger and more diverse economic and cultural story, one that has helped transform Glasgow from the failed manufacturing centre it was not so long ago, to the diverse and exciting cultural hub we know today, that attracts people from all over the world.
And since those of us who choose to spend our hard-earned cash in town instead of online or at an out-of-town mall, are contributing to this positive story.
After all, we tend to make a day, even a weekend of it, meeting friends and family for coffee, lunch, dinner and/or drinks, while those from out of town may stay in a hotel. And once we are in town, we want to broaden our horizons and take advantage of the unique and independent shopping options, the bespoke and craft products you can see with your own eyes, hold in your hands and try on for size.
Once we’ve tired of the shops, meanwhile, we may well seek out some culture and pop into a museum or gallery to catch an exhibition, go and see a film, or head to the theatre.
And this is where the Christmas lights and the razzamatazz, the little markets and street vendors, all have such an important part to play in the social and cultural mix, food for the senses that can transform a blatantly commercial exchange into something a wee bit more soulful, something Amazon can never hope to match.
This strong link between shopping and culture applies to towns and cities across the country, although as the headlines constantly remind us, many are nowhere near as vibrant as the likes of Buchanan Street.
Indeed, the situation for Glasgow as a whole is far from rosy; only yesterday it was revealed that 44 stores had closed in the first half of this year, more than anywhere else in Scotland. A walk up Sauchiehall Street, meanwhile, once a great shopping mecca, now overrun by pound shops and empty sites, tells a sorry and cautionary tale.
With this in mind, do we really want to sit back and let our historic high streets, the very heart and soul of our towns and cities, the gateway to our wider cultural life, become ghost towns? Is it really worth swapping all this for a dull online transaction that might save us a tenner? Our high streets represent so much more than simply bricks and mortar; like family members, they are links to our past, present and future, and must be cherished and shepherded through this transitional times.
For all these reasons, you won’t be surprised to hear that this year, like every other year, I’ll be doing all my Christmas shopping in person, in actual shops, on the high street.
There will be queues, there will be traffic and car park gridlock, there will be sore feet. And I’ll be loving every minute of it.
This article first appeared in The Herald on November 16. It perfectly sums up the importance of the “big experience” to the Glasgow retail sector.