Coming Soon: Your Shopping Hell
With the high streets in trouble and shopping malls not always proving to be as exciting as we’d hoped, corporations are punting around for ways of making it interesting to shop again.
London’s vast King’s Cross Coal Drops project (ie. fancy mall) is in the press for the wrong reasons. This POPS (Privately Owned Public Space) has the most sophisticated facial recognition system in the world, but what happens to all the data they’re privately gathering? It can’t be going towards improving security. The place is guarded like Fort Knox already.
This is meant to be the future. Nicknamed ‘Retail Westeros’, it’s a high-end affair of shops containing a handful of tiny dresses and strappy shoes, lifestyle shops that don’t appear to be selling anything but have raw bars, beard wax and a few expensive household knick-knacks. This is the home of the £15 tea towel and the £15 cup of coffee. There’s hardly ever anyone here. Some friends from Dubai visited and loved it.
Now, at its apex, it has a gigantic flagship Samsung store. Having had my phone stolen, I ventured into it with a pal of mine, the self-described ‘fat, bearded, ginger’ Roger, who likes to laugh and hates pretension.
At the door we’re greeted by a tiny man whose name I think may be Rupesh. He’s preventing casual access to the store, blocking the way like a restaurant’s Maitre D. He smiles and talks, God how he talks, questioning us about what we’re here for. He’s wearing a dog tag around his neck that reads; ‘Rupesh. Yogi. Father. Good Listener.’ Roger tells him that for a good listener he has an awful lot of patter. He smiles and smiles and says he will take us to our own guru.
Now I have my guard up. I say I just want to look at a phone. ‘This,’ he says, waving a hand around the vast space, ‘is an experiential store, so let me find a guide to accompany you.’ I guess we look like tealeafs because he’s clearly not going to let us anywhere near the goods without a chaperone. He introduces us to three Generation Z types at an empty workbench, who look like Scientologists, smiling and nodding. One is chosen to attach himself to us.
The store has VR pods and walls screens the size of cinemas. It is a cathedral of minimal taste and natural finishes. There appear to be hardly any customers, but then I realise that’s because each one is attached to a guru, each being wafted around the retail experience in a manner that suggests they’re on a futuristic funfair ride.
I’ve made a huge mistake. I thought this was a shop but it’s ‘a creative and digital playground’.
Samsung staff are highly trained in banter. I had already checked out a phone in Fnac, the lovely ramshackle European chain, which has a concession there. I’d tried the latest Note phone and told the friendly salesman that I was really an Apple person. He cheerfully admitted that was a problem, because syncing everything wasn’t quite as simple as it’s been promised. Here though, in the Samsung mothership, the problem was ignored for there was a bigger problem.
‘Our recent launch has been such an incredibly huge success,’ says the next guru clinging to us like a rock-pool limpet, ‘that we’re only taking advance orders now.’ So the shop has nothing to actually sell, unless you want a TV. That doesn’t put a dent in anyone’s enthusiasm. Perhaps I should try out the VR pod, which is rather like the engineer’s chair from ‘Alien’.
No, because that’s a space covered by a different guru – God forbid we should be left to browse unattended for a second – we might run amuck and have an experiential breakdown. I spot the phones in the distance in what turns out to be a display lacking the experiential buzz, six phones tethered to a bench with metal cables, suggesting we’re actually in Dixons. Look out, the gurus are back! Three of them now, with Rupesh hovering in the background beaming wildly, as if he might be whipped if we leave without signing up for something. The gurus’ banter has taken a passive-aggressive turn as Roger pushes back about price and (un)availability.
Suddenly the Good Listener suggests that it’s a bad time to shop here because there’s a presentation going on somewhere else in the store and the hive mind can’t give us quite the full service retail experience we so clearly need. I suggest we come back another time, they agree with too much enthusiasm, and we flee to the nearest pub. The ‘experience’ was like being smothered to death with scented pillows, a gruesome mash-up of ‘Gattacca’, ‘Westworld’ and ‘Passengers’ with a touch of ‘Brazil’ thrown in.
It’s not the staff’s fault – they’re following scripts and doing exactly what is required of them – but this is London, not Guangzhou or San Fran, and this kind of suffocating false joy doesn’t play well.
I was teetering on the edge of buying a Samsung phone and mashing it into my all-Apple home set-up, but this not only put me off – it drove me back to Apple. I’ll wait for the next-gen phones. How bad can not having a phone for a couple of months be? Didn’t civilisation survive without them for almost 2,000 years? Because if this is the future of shopping, I’m in Dante’s fourth circle of hell at least.