They have a pulse, a rhythm, a beat: markets. No antiseptic aisles, no serried lines of check-out counters, no corporate branding.
A market cannot be reduced to the transactions that are its formal purpose. Rather, they are performance venues, an example of audience participation in informal theatrical production.
Markets: places of manifestly human encounters- even fashionable foodie markets plying esoteric comestibles to the recipe-saturated, maintain something of the looseness, something of the boisterous waywardness of the long-established, local street market. It’s all deliciously human. Rough and ready, the wrinkles not smoothed out – blood running through its veins.
A market is both a community in itself, and part of a wider community; and a social space. As recognised in a report for the National Association of British Market Authorities:
Markets are places of social interaction
- Used by all sections of society, markets are where people of different incomes, ages, genders and cultures can meet together and interact. They are the happy ‘third place’ of spontaneous interaction.
- Markets facilitate community cohesion and social inclusion. Because of the ease of becoming a trader, markets have traditionally been attractive to new arrivals. They encourage newcomers to become part of the community and are spaces of diversity.
- Markets are crucial to the distinct identity of a town or area. From Market Rasen and Downham Market to the ‘modern market town’ that Altrincham prides itself on being, markets are emblematic of many places.
- They embody a community and set it apart from those without such an asset. They are a key part of the experiential identity of the place and enhance the city image.
- Markets animate vacant or underused space. Whether in street, market place or vacant lot, markets create vitality and animation, drawing customers and onlookers. Their layout can encourage exploration and discovery.
- Markets benefit disadvantaged communities. The presence of local markets offering affordable and fresh produce can increase choice for people in deprived areas and improve their quality of life and help address social problems.
- Markets contribute to community development. The small business nature of markets, their entrepreneurial character and integration with the community promotes community development and connectedness.
Customer is not right
In a market the customer is, quite decidedly, not always right. The trader is. A trader: performance artist, scene-setter, animateur, wit, sometimes animated, sometimes, well, just pissed-off – it’s the trader who sets the tone and content of any transaction. And, yes, you should buy what we’re selling.
But let’s get socio-political again, for there’s another aspect, too: even employed traders – those employed by a proprietor-trader – they nevertheless retain their own persona, their own character, their own patter, manner and performance style. Market traders are, manifestly, individuals. Nothing corporate about them, strangers to the desiccated, formulaic ‘customer service’ served up by the staff – employees all – of supermarkets and globalised, branded stores.
But the corporates, currently, look as though they’re on the winning side. In true Darwnian survival of the fittest style, they adapt. This from a CentrePiece article:
‘But the fall in the opening of big boxes [i.e. out of town superstores] did not coincide with a reduction in the total number of new stores, rather with a change in their size and location. In the years following the introduction of the reforms, [the planning reforms introduced in 1996 and reinforced in 1999] the major UK retail chains started to open more small stores on high streets and in city centres. Griffith and Harmgart (2005) show that since the late 1990s, the top four UK retail chains substantially increased the number of small convenience stores opened in town centres relative to investments in large stores in out-of-town locations.’
As the local, proprietor-owned shops and market stalls are relentlessly erased from the local ecology of neighbourhood life, replaced by the corporates, their branding promoting a masquerade of intimate connection – ‘little Waitrose’ (note the insinuating lower case in ‘little’ – I’m small, I want to be your friend) ; ‘Sainsbury’s Local’ (note the ‘Local’); ‘Tesco express’ (note the lower case, italicised ‘express’ , for all you hurried-off-your-feet people needing to ‘pop-in’ on your way home) – more and more people, young and old, are forced to become employees of huge corporates that, certainly at the ‘customer-facing’ end, rely on the depersonalisation of the person, their staff.
This depersonalisation has as its logical end point the use of robots. We’re almost there, with those self-service, check-out units increasingly prevalent. So that’s technology as the handmaiden of social sterility and, presumably, enhanced company profits. In this context – depersonalisation – there is the European Court of Justice’s recent judgment which found that, provided a company has a formal, general policy disallowing the display of any religious symbol – crucifix, headscarf, skullcap, etc – at work, then a company is within its rights to enforce a no religous symbol rule on its customer-facing staff because:
‘… an employer’s desire to project an image of neutrality towards both its public and private sector customers is legitimate notably where the only workers involved are those who come into contact with customers. That desire relates to the freedom to conduct a business which is recognised in the Charter.’
Putting to one side the wider merits or demerits of the ruling, consider this: doesn’t the ruling pressage yet another, legally supported, step in the effacement – ‘image of neutrality’ – of employees’ character and individuality as, tethered to their check-out points, wearing the company uniform, they are forced to perform as customer-facing mechanicals replicating in anticipation the electronic voice message of the machines that will replace them. So, as they say, ‘Have a good day’.
 Report by Professor Alan Hallsworth and Professor Cathy Parker and Simon Quin from the Institute of Place Management, Manchester Metropolitan University