Instant expert: Shopping

January 28, 2005

Conference: Shopping, Retail and Leisure, 1500-2000. Wolverhampton University, February 2

What's it about? This is a workshop organised by the Centre for the History of Retailing and Distribution (Chord), which will look at the meaning of our consumer spending experiences, putting the retelling into retailing.

Fee: £8.

But I hate shopping: The high street isn't just about queues and cash tills; there's a whole consumer culture to be explored. For instance, there's a paper about the relationship between shops and women in 1920s Japanese society. Or, as the abstract says: "Department stores should be regarded as not only new aestheticised spaces of consumption, but also as nascent women's public spheres."

What not to ask: Does my vocabulary look big in this?

Why are all shopping streets becoming the same? Good question. There's going to be a paper looking at how shopping streets in London's West End changed between 1950 and 1979, using information from old street directories. This will ask whether the arrival of fashionable boutiques turned shopping into a kind of entertainment.

Dazzle the delegates: Did you know that just before Christmas we became a country that spends more on cards than with cash? The specific moment at which the balance tipped was December 29 at 10.38am in a Tesco on West Cromwell Road in London, with a purchase by teacher Helen Carroll.

Academic department: A department store isn't just a shop, it's also a market for ideas, with visitors facing a blizzard of messages and images. They have always been about novelty and innovation. Harrods installed London's first escalator in 1898 and, to soothe nervous customers, they put an assistant at the top with a bottle of brandy.

Intellectual property: Make sure you get your popular culture references in order with some pre-conference homework. Shopping icons should include Sex and the City , Trinny and Susannah and Ab Fab . Are You Being Served? and Open All Hours are still a long way from rehabilitation.

Packaging techniques: How would you get the punters in to hear a talk about "sports goods retailing in the inter-war years"? Call the paper The Rat at the Throat of Honest Dealers . It is about how small specialist sports clothes retailers in the 1930s were squeezed out by big department stores and direct selling by mail order. Sounds familiar? But with a title like that, people will think they're going to see one of those DVDs you find on sale in all-night garages.

Talking shop: Did you know that "retail" is derived from French and means "a piece cut off"? To continue the French connection, the first department store is claimed as Le Bon Marche, which opened in Paris in 1872. The phrase "retail therapy" is now an established entry in the Oxford English Dictionary .

Reflections on a shop window: There will also be a look at how the pageantry of national events, such as the Queen's coronation, was represented in the patriotic window displays of the big shops on Oxford Street and Regent Street in London. Presumably without today's large posters saying FCUK.

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