It is twenty years this week since I visited Canada for the first time. Flying in a great arc from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport over Greenland, and landing in Vancouver in British Columbia, there was a realisation of the sheer immensity of Canada. During time in Vancouver, a Sears catalogue came in our host’s morning mail. Growing up in the open vastness of the prairie province of Manitoba, she recalled the excitement the arrival of the Sears catalogue had brought to her home in her younger years. “When you live miles and miles from a big store; it was the only place where you would see new and interesting stuff.” Another prairie-born person, who had grown up in Alberta, recounted the monthly journey to the city, a five hour drive away. All the anticipated requirements for the month were bought in the city stores and if anything was forgotten, its purchase would have to wait another month.
It was not just those who lived in remote places who engaged in mail order or occasional shopping. My grandmother living just outside the small town of Langport in Somerset, did her weekly shopping from the farm telephone. Making a list during the week, she would phone the Co-op in the village of Long Sutton with her list of requirements and the Co-op van would deliver her groceries to her door (online shopping would have been no novelty to her). Journeys to the town were for specific purposes, such as the monthly meeting of the women’s guild, not for going to the shops. Even those who did their weekly shopping in a supermarket would still use mail order catalogues for bigger purposes, the advantage being that one could spread repayments over weeks or months. Notionally, the mail order items were interest free, but charging prices that were much higher than those in a shop, ensured the catalogue companies were profitable.
Perhaps the traditional high street, with its diverse stockists, is not as traditional as it might be assumed. Certainly, there were more traders concentrated in a particular place, but it was often a case of a multiplicity of similar shops, rather than an offering of great diversity. Had there been the level of choice now nostalgically recalled, why would the mail order companies have found a niche and why would the supermarkets have become established?
The online marketplace that has developed far exceeds anything imagined in the days when it was felt that the Sears catalogue offered a whole world of possibilities, or when my grandmother telephoned her order, yet what is remarkable is not the disappearance of the high street, but its continued vibrancy in many towns. Our town of Langport now has a wider range of shops than I ever remember, shops which exist because they offer a quality of good or service not available online or in any supermarket.