1973 – The frightening world of the supermarket

Coastlands Shopping Town in Paraparaumu for instance is open on Saturday mornings and shoppers find this very convenient.

The Listener, 22 January, 1973

When I was a teenager I lived in Raumati Beach, the bit that wasn’t by the beach, and the only place to go and hang out was Coastlands.  From my house it was probably a fifteen minute walk to this shoppers’ paradise.  The last five minutes of the walk was down a road between two cow paddocks.  Since I moved away from the coast in 1990 the cow paddock between that road and state highway one has been sold off and developed, and Coastlands has been extended.  That cow paddock is now a thin strip of fast food stores along the motorway, with a series of large warehouses surrounded by a few acres of car park behind them.  The large warehouses are supermarkets and, well, the Warehouse.

After spending so many idle teenage hours hanging around Coastlands looking for something to do it’s hard for me to imagine that it was once regarded as being at the forefront of shopping in New Zealand, but it would seem that it is actually an historic complex representing the beginning of something new in this country. 

Coastlands1

The pages of The Listener in 1973 reveal quite a lot of anxiety about the trend towards the supermarket and the mall.  However, as so often is the way in New Zealand, this anxiety about the new, which makes people hesitant or even resistant to change, is countered-balanced by the forward thrust of another very kiwi anxiety: not wanting foreigners to make fun of us as “backward.”

“I came to New Zealand but it was closed,” remarked British businessman and gourmet Clement Freud during a brief visit here in 1970. 

The Listener, 22 January, 1973

Even while we were getting our backs up and telling this British ponce to stuff off I bet we were hurting inside.  New Zealand was closed and apparently the latest thing to be was open.  Never mind the immigrant urge in the 19th century that brought tens of thousands of people here to escape the relentless, “we’re always open” thrust of the industrial age.  One thing that weekend shopping and 24-hour service leads to is a cutting away at the socialist idea of eight hours for work, eight hours for play and eight hours for sleep (and a weekend off).

On the other hand all the shops being shut on the weekend is dumb.

The popularity of Saturday morning shopping at Coastlands in the early 1970s proves that New Zealanders thought it was dumb too.  So, if we could handle the idea of a shop being open on a Saturday morning how about the “concept” of the supermarket?  In case we weren’t sure what a supermarket was Mr. Smithies of the Consumer Institute was on hand to explain.

“The supermarket concept depends on self-service.  People pick up goods themselves and the person behind the counter is there to receive money and give change.” 

Ok.  I think I understand.  Now, can you explain the concept of packaging, please?

“There is a swing away from the flesh-and-blood salesman to the packages as silent salesman.  Instead of knowledgeable service you have to rely on the information on the package.  This has meant a revolution in packaging and display.”

The Listener, 5 Feb, 1973

Interesting point about the change in packaging, but knowledgeable service? 

  • 1970s New Zealander – “Excuse me.”
  • 1970s Grocer – “Yes.”
  • 1970s New Zealander – “I want to buy some bread but I’m not sure how to go about it.”
  • 1970s Grocer – “Well we only have two kinds: white thin-sliced, and white toast-slice.”
  • 1970s New Zealander – “Oh dear.  Two kinds you say?  Which would you recommend?”

Mr. Smithies tells us that although many jobs may disappear with the advent of the supermarket and the automated age some areas of employment remain so specialised they will be preserved for all eternity.

The tea lady, for instance, has little chance of being superseded by a machine.

Ah, how right he was.  No chance of the tea lady being replaced by getting-off-your-ass-and-making-the-f%*king-coffee yourself.

What Mr. Smithies seems to be explaining is the slow death of something called “the shops”.

Every small town, suburb or urban neighbourhood had its cluster of retailers: grocer, greengrocer, dairy, butcher, draper, women’s hairdresser, hardware store, barber, and tobacconist….  The greengrocer, or fruiterer would probably be Chinese or Indian; the fishmonger Greek or Dalmatian.

Belich, Paradise  Reforged

Going to “the shops” had been under steady threat since rising car ownership made going “to town” a lot easier, but it was going to be the supermarket that really killed the shops.  Although, as with most trends in history, these things take time.  When my mother and I moved into her house at the far end of Karori in 1991 there was still a short row of shops that contained a (Greek) fish and chip store, a dairy, a butcher and a chemist.  By the time I left home a few years later these had all been replaced with fast food stores (and the Greeks had sold out to some Chinese).  “The shops” when I was very young were at Raumati Beach, and I can remember my mother talking very fondly of the Chinese couple that ran the green grocers.  As is the way with “the shops” in a slightly more affluent area, after most of the traditional shops closed, and following a period of being derelict, these shops are now cafes, delis, and boutique clothing stores.

Coastlands3

While Mr. Smithies was here to explain these frightening new trends in shopping the editor of The Listener, M.H. Holcroft, was here to rail against it all.  Although Holcroft’s main beef in his editorial of 12 March, 1973, was with the changing language of the situations vacant page (he rails against the preposterous absurdity of jobs called “data analysts” and “computer programmers”) his venom is mostly reserved for the check out girl:

“Progressive supermarket” in need of a “check-out operator” – in plain words, a young woman to ring up your ever-increasing prices on what was once a cash register, but is now a machine which registers, adds, and ejects a docket snappishly, with a sound of almost contempt.

Somehow, this leads us to this concluding sentence:

Our plastic culture has come too quickly: there are times, wandering through the situations vacant, when we begin to suspect that the surrealist dream was prophetic, announcing the improbable shapes of things to come, and the decay of language.

Clearly Holcroft was not a fan of his local supermarket.  Or neologisms.

Still, on some days I find myself in the same foul mood as the editor of The Listener.

Sometimes on the weekends, when we lived in Japan, we would find ourselves lost somewhere in an endless labyrinth of shops, underground malls, and subway stations in Osaka.  We would spend hours pressed in with a stream of hundreds of thousands of Japanese filing up and down escalators, cramming onto trains, and idling away hours fingering products on endless shelves.  All the products were wrapped in layers of packaging to be discarded within a moment, all the shops were air conditioned, all the restaurants were tossing out rubbish bags full of one use disposable chop sticks, and it was then that you could see how the world would probably end: not in nuclear armageddon, but in an endless cycle of shopping, packaging and waste.

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