When ‘good enough’ really isn’t

Shop_Dummies

Settling for second best in a virtual world

As well as being a writer, I am also a photographer. In one of the photography blogs I follow, I came across an interesting article about a new software package that could revolutionise the way that clothes companies show their wares in catalogues and in their general advertising. Clothes companies traditionally hire a photographer to take pictures of real live models wearing their clothes. That approach produces great looking images but is both time consuming and expensive. Now, new CAD (Computer Aided Design) software could make that process redundant. The technology – the kind used in the movies to produce the giant blue creatures in Avatar – means that clothing companies can show ‘virtual’ images of their clothes on a variety of different models. You like the look of that dress, but you’re not sure whether it will suit you as you’re a size 14 red-head and the picture on the website shows it on a size 8 blonde? No problem. At the touch of a button you can see how it will look on somebody like you as the software has a library of physiques, sizes and poses and can realistically wrap the clothes around individuals with a variety of physical characteristics.

Sounds good? Maybe to you, but if you were a photographer earning a living from shooting for clothes manufacturers and retailers, you could see your livelihood evaporate overnight. But why would anybody else care about this? As somebody who used to earn his living from taking photographs, I’m probably biased, but I find it depressing to see yet another step away from reality and into the virtual world which increasingly defines our lives. Not to mention that there is also something slightly disturbing about seeing clothes modeled by computer clones rather than real people. But, hey, it keeps prices down and it’s ‘good enough’, isn’t it?

So what has this got to do with a blog about business and politics in Cornwall?  Well, quite a lot actually. I’ve made a couple of posts recently on the challenges facing our high streets. We’ve seen household names closing across Cornwall (Jessops, JJB Sports) and others under serious threat (HMV). Meanwhile, the controversial proposal for a giant retail park at Coyte Farm is highlighting the decline of the high street in places like St Austell. It’s clear that the 21st Century consumer prizes convenience and price over everything else. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the companies manufacturing the goods, and the retailers who sell them to us, are driven by the need to get the cheapest products to the consumer in the most convenient form. For the producers, that means a ruthless drive to cut manufacturing costs and for the retailers it means utilising internet sales channels and concentrating their remaining ‘bricks and mortar’ activities into ever larger, more efficient (for which read standardised and characterless) sites. If that leads to the ultimate demise of our high streets and independent retailers, well that’s just the price of progress. The goods may be homogenised, the shopping experience sanitised and the old high streets turned into ghost towns, but the trade off between what we pay and what we’re getting is good enough.

Of course, it would be futile to stand King Canute-like on the beach and try to hold back the incoming tide. Although Cornwall is on the periphery of the British Isles, it isn’t immune from the economic and technological forces shaping the rest of the world. But isn’t this a place that has always prided itself on doing things a little differently to the rest of the country? Can’t we at least try to shift the balance, if only a little, away from the ‘good enough’ mentality which seems to have overtaken the rest of the country? Going back to Coyte Farm, surely the bureaucrats who seem ready to throw in the towel as far as St Austell town centre is concerned by approving an off-the-peg 100 acre retail park, owe us something better. We need to see some imagination being applied to the issue, a vision perhaps of a town centre with a mix of large anchor tenants like M&S and smaller independent retailers. The bureaucrats should be looking at how to attract and support the smaller retailers that give a shopping area its distinctive character; if that means radical schemes such as rethinking car parking charges and business rates, then so be it.

Maybe copying other towns and cities in the UK and yielding to the inevitability of the out of town retail park would give us an outcome that is good enough. But there are times when ‘good enough’ really isn’t.

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