Interview with Professor Rachel Bowlby

Ahead of Rachel's appearance at We Invented the Weekend, we had the chance to ask her some questions

rachel bowlby interview

Rachel Bowlby has written several books about the history and theory of shopping, including Back to the Shops: The High Street in History and the Future. We had the chance to ask her some questions ahead of her appearance at the We Invented the Weekend Festival on Saturday 15 June.


Q: Historically, shopping has often been done in groups, with people participating in the activity with both friends and family. Today, internet shopping is an increasingly individual activity, with people browsing and purchasing alone. In this context, has the decline of the high street and the rise of internet shopping decelerated, or accelerated, consumer culture?

A: There are lots of questions here! To begin with, it could be said group shopping is a modern phenomenon, related to trips into the town centre or, more recently, the weekly shop at the supermarket. The core shopping encounter was one on one, a seller and a buyer across the counter, or at the market, or on the doorstep (the pedlar).

“What’s distinctive about internet shopping is that there’s no salesperson there – it’s not one on one so much as just one. That solitary situation began with self-service: just the shopper and the shelves, you pick out your items yourself.”


Q: Are there any historical parallels to today’s changing retail experiences that might inform the future of high street shopping?

A: One example is home delivery, which we associate with big chains but which was rediscovered during the Covid lockdowns as not necessarily large-scale or distant when local shops, small shops, started to do home deliveries, ordered online.  In other words, the tech and the the small scale aren’t mutually exclusive. And until the 1950s and 1960s – until supermarkets came in – that was standard for food shopping, all over the country. The local butcher or baker or greengrocer delivered to your door.


Q: What innovations in retail do you see as most promising for the future of shopping? How can these innovations address current challenges faced by the high street?

A: The rapid development recently of online platforms for second-hand buying and selling of clothes is a really exciting development.

“It’s a practical challenge to the culture of fast fashion which also transfers the initiative to consumers (who become sellers as well)…it’s a return to a one-on-one type of exchange.”


Q: Is ethical consumption possible? What might ethical consumption look like, and how might current examples serve as models for wider adoption amongst the public?

A: There has been a huge shift in perceptions of shopping over the past ten years or so. It can be seen in the way that every company now presents its environmental credentials, to show how it’s encouraging good consuming (recycling) or good production practice, from farming practices to the sourcing of materials to employee working conditions. That’s a sign of how norms have shifted. The other side of this is that everyone – we are all consumers – is much more aware of these issues.


Q: Many people today derive satisfaction from cultivating relationships with certain brands that ‘define’ their personhood. In this sense, can consumption be empowering to the individual? And, if so, should consumption be empowering?

A: This is another vast topic. Instead of empowering, it can just as much be said that brand loyalty is infantilising, encouraging us to troop along faithfully as the supporters of this brand rather than that one. A slogan like ‘The power to lower prices’ (a current Tesco slogan) is manifestly patronising. It’s obviously not customers who have that power!

The question of consumption being empowering or not has an interesting history in terms of gender.

“Back when ‘the consumer’ was imagined as a woman – a housewife – she was the opposite of empowered. She was passive, manipulated, brainwashed  (those were standard words in arguments against advertising in the middle 20th century).”

Then the image shifted, just when men started to be seen as shoppers too. The new consumer was no longer an idiot but a model of rational behaviour, someone with rights and choices. This was the ‘rational’ consumer, weighing the options and calculating the best option: the reader of Which?  magazine, say, or the user of comparison websites.


Q: How can consumers be encouraged to take more responsibility for their shopping habits in terms of sustainability and supporting local businesses? What educational or incentive programs could be effective?

A: By learning about the history! Which can be done in all sorts of ways. Reading about it.  And also talking to people with different experiences (different generations, especially). Everyone has theories about, and knowledge of, the history of shopping, because we all shop (or avoid shopping): we can’t not have a relationship to it.


Thank you to Rachel for taking the time to answer our questions. Rachel was interviewed by Isabella Parkes on behalf of Manchester Lit & Phil.

Professor Rachel Bowlby will be a guest panellist at the We Think Big talk, ‘We’re Still Shopping?!’, at the We Invented the Weekend festival, on Saturday 15 June 2024. Visit the festival’s website for more information.

professor rachel bowlby fba

Professor Rachel Bowlby FBA

Rachel Bowlby is Professor Emeritus at University College London. Her work is focussed on two main areas: literary realism, and the history and theory of shopping.

Rachel has written several books about shopping: Just Looking (about women and department stores), Carried Away (about the invention of self-service), and most recently, Back to the Shops: The High Street in History and the Future. A new book, Unexpected Items, will be published in late 2024.

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