Thursday, April 3, 2008

Consumption and commerce are essential

In my writings and my public position, I criticize several aspects of consumption, especially excesses on the part of consumers and speculation on the part of sellers. However, I am in no way against the consumption and I do not preach in favour of self deprivation or hard core simple living. These solutions are so extreme that they can do nothing but put off most consumers… rather than encourage them to consume more sensibly. On the contrary, I believe that, subject to responsible practices on both sides, consumption and commerce are essential in two ways. They are first of all mandatory from an economic perspective. In fact, strong domestic consumption is what has so far saved Canada from the recession in the United States since the summer of 2007. According to the Conference Board of Canada, «Consumers Help Canadian Economy Overcome the U.S. Twin Shocks».

Consumption is just as essential from a human standpoint. Everyone wants to have fun, consume, acquire goods and use services that make life more enjoyable, things that go beyond the strict necessities of life.

In my most recent book, « Consommation et luxe, La voie de l’excès et de l’illusion » (Consumption and luxury, The path of excess and illusion), I stress the essential, universal and anthropological nature of luxury consumption, resting my argument on Shakespeare and Lipovetsky.

Trade and consumption have been an essential part of human development, they have existed for millennia. It would be idealistic to attempt stopping such activities in the twenty-first century.

The shopping center was born in the 1950s. Much like motorways, population migration to the suburbs made essential construction of this new mode of distribution: the shopping mall. Mega shopping centers are simply an evolution of retailing; they are increasingly places both of necessity and pleasure.

Doesn’t the Quartier Dix30 plan to open a Mega private health care clinic, something many Quebecers feel to be a necessity? Furthermore, their commercial offer goes well beyond the traditional commercial function; these new commercial centers are referred to as Life Style Shopping Centers.

The Quartier Dix30 , the largest Life Style Shopping Center in Canada, recreates the illusion of a Main Street in old days villages, an artery mainly intended to be functional, as it centralized shops people needed. These new malls’ main function is symbolic; it is also designed to give you a sensory experience.

Apart from «Main Street» and the Theatre, many other shopping malls incorporate all other aspects of Quartier Dix30: free indoor and outdoor parking, a variety of restaurants, cinemas, and so on. What is so special about a Life Style Shopping Center? As for a perfume or a luxury restaurant, packaging and communication make the product.

Positioning and selling Quartier Dix30 as an entertainment center is inspired by Lipovetsky’s pleasure-purchase logic: «Today, even the consumption of material goods tends to switch to an experiential logic, shopping in general bathing in a recreational and hedonic atmosphere» (G. Lipovetsky, Le bonheur paradoxal. Essai sur la société d’hyperconsommation, Paris, Gallimard, 2006, p. 60).

Some will say that architects of this project only encourage consumption, and they will be right. However, we are not victims but accomplices of the consumer society; it’s up to us to consume better and less. Furthermore, these promoters help make people dream in a world that really needs; Quartier Dix30, it’s not a shopping mall, it’s a recreotouristic center in which rich people and less affluent ones can find what they want.

Purchasing behaviour in open-type Mega shopping malls is not the same as in a traditional closed-type mall. The latter promotes shopping, walking, often without a specific purchase in mind, even walking for health purposes, as some walking clubs practise this activity in winter. People who spend time in malls say that they get pleasure from these visits; they will even stop for coffee at one of many indoor terraces found in these places. Some people living in the city cannot understand what pleasure there is in this activity; as far as I’m concerned, I see no difference between having coffee and mingling with people in such places or doing so one of Montreal’s many cafes.

This type of behaviour can also be observed on the «main street» of a Life Style Shopping center such as Quartier Dix30. However, behaviour changes radically in shops that stand away from this central point. People who go into these shops often have a specific purchase in mind, they have made their choice of product and point of sale on the Internet or in a promotional brochure; they go directly to selected store, do their shopping and then often leave the mall.

In large cities such as Montreal, trade has rather developed in a linear fashion, Ste-Catherine Street for instance; much like a mall, some of these commercial streets even feature a canopy that protects consumers from bad weather while shopping, Plaza St-Hubert for instance. More recently, commercial spaces have flourished in Montreal’s underground, Montreal’s Indoor City.

Consider this map of Montreal’s Indoor City.

According to the Observatoire de la Ville intérieure, «The indoor city is a set of buildings connected by interior walkways, belonging to distinct owners, offering a diversity of functions, namely public transportation, shopping malls, office space and leisure activities, where the use of public space has been settled by an agreement with the municipal authorities». As of December 31 2004, Montreal’s Indoor City featured 1,366 shops of all types and 477 restaurants of all categories.

What difference is there really between Montreal’s Indoor City, Plaza St-Hubert, Ste-Catherine Street, a portion of which is to be pedestrianized in summer 2008, and the Quartier Dix 30? The answer is simple: NONE!

Why then criticize Mega shopping malls?

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