Die, Spectacle-Commodity Economy!
I was rather amused by John Lanchester's piece on the decline of Woolworth's in the new LRB. Like many, during my last holiday back home, I had a trawl through my local Woolie's, just before it's closure. The shelves had almost been entirely picked over already; everything I used to go in there for (shoe polish, mostly) had already been made off with; very little remained of their confectionery save the pick-and-mix (the main bounty of my childhood). What was strangest was the bareness of the shelves: it was one of those chains which seemed to pride itself on being as claustrophobically full of stuff as possible (cf. Primark). It was rather like seeing a half-picked over carcass, an exposed skeleton yielding at times to substantial patches of skin and flesh; many items - primary schoolgirls' dresses, sellotape, paper - had hardly been bought at all, and spilled from cardboard boxes evidently hauled out from the backroom where the staff had kept them for years, assuming they would always have a home there. I'm reminded why I stop shopping there after the age of 10:
"The problem was more that the shops were so chaotic, so prone to not having the stuff you’d expect them to have, to selling out of precisely the things everybody wanted, and above all to having chronically demotivated, deskilled staff. The staff were hard to find in the first place, and if you did find someone, they never knew anything – where it was, what it was, who might want it, where it might be if it wasn’t right on the shelf where it was supposed to be, and why any of this was supposed to be of interest to them.... There’s a lot of this on the high street. Many of Britain’s biggest retail companies treat employees as a commodity. They are paid as little as possible, trained as little as possible, and employed in the lowest possible numbers. It sometimes seems as if managements employ a formula: work out the minimum levels of staffing for the shop to function, then subtract 20 per cent."
It's true: I felt positively evil, when shopping there, for perpetuating the situation in which these kids (and the floor staff almost always were under-18) found themselves. I'm glad to say this wasn't the case in the last retail job I worked in (training was always sufficient, and the managers usually knocking about if you came across something you really didn't understand; management constantly tried to keep staff numbers as strong as they could, more often than not constrained by miserly budgets from head office), but the same sense of hopelessness, of repeatedly having to deal with endless obstacles, is exactly the same. It's perhaps not surprising that so few retail workplaces are unionised: in late capitalism, the consumer interface has become so naturalised as to make the cylical daily grind seem ontological. Perhaps it's a bit much to hope that the current shaking of capital's edifice will precipitate a shift in this - but what the hell else do we hope for?