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CULTURE

Opinion: Why the rise of Amazon won’t change Italy’s shopping culture forever

Amazon’s popularity in Italy is booming due to the pandemic. But will this really have such a profound impact on Italian culture? Italy-based American writer Mark Hinshaw has his doubts.

Opinion: Why the rise of Amazon won’t change Italy's shopping culture forever
An Amazon customer opens a parcel in Rome on March 30th, during Italy's lockdown. Photo: AFP

“People in countries that had traditionally resisted the e-commerce giant are now also falling into (Amazon’s) grasp after retail stores shut down for months because of the coronavirus,” reads a New York Times article published on September 25th.

“The shift has been particularly pronounced in Italy … Italians have traditionally preferred to shop in stores and pay cash. But after the government imposed Europe’s first nationwide virus lockdown, Italians began buying items online in record numbers,” it said.
 
The article speculates that Italians increasingly using Amazon for purchases may permanently alter the country’s commercial culture. 
 
I am not so certain.
 
To be sure, we have personally seen the increased presence of Amazon deliveries in our small village in Italy’s Marche region during the past three years.  We purchase products ourselves through Amazon. A couple of years ago, we were among the few people here who did. And the delivery service was erratic, sometimes taking a week or more.
 
Now, virtually every time we set foot onto the main commercial street a few hundred feet away, there is at least one DHL, Fedex, or UPS truck with its driver unloading piles of Amazon boxes. 
 
 
The Italian postal service is part of the distribution; often its little colorfully-marked van screeches to a halt at our front door. Moreover, the delivery time for orders now is rarely more than a few days and is most often under 24 hours. In our relatively remote location. 
 
Clearly, Amazon has significantly stepped up its infrastructure of distribution.
 
As the authors of the NYT piece observed, the three month long, very strict lockdown severely curtailed access to many businesses. This likely got many Italians more familiar with the process of ordering online and having items delivered. 
 
Many shops in Italy are reluctant to take credit cards because the banking fees are too high for their small, family-owned operation. Amazon is more than happy to take a card number.
 
 
However, while this may have added another purchasing choice to Italian households, I’m not convinced that this represents a fundamental change in the culture. One that will cause local businesses to close. Rather, it simply becomes another option in the marketplace.
 
The Italian government terminated the widely enforced lockdown four months ago. Aside from most people still wearing masks and restaurants blocking off seating areas, almost the entire country has returned to the state prior to the onslaught of Covid-19. 
 
 
Since we can now travel freely, we have. We have been to dozens of cities – large and small – since early June. We have traveled through our region, a territory somewhat analogous to a state in the US.
 
Italy stands in sharp contrast to the situation reported in the media and confirmed by friends and relatives in the US in one immense regard: we have seen no restaurants close permanently.  We have seen no shops close and disappear.
 
We enjoy the same charming cafes and coffee bars that we always have. I’m sure there have been instances of closures somewhere, perhaps in the hard-hit cities in the north. But we have not seen any. Not a one.
 
Italian cafes and restaurats, and their customers, have adapted to a new way of doing things under Covid-19 restrictions. Photo: AFP
 
I have asked myself why this is. These are small, often family-owned, businesses with slim profit margins. How could they all survive being shut down for a quarter of a year? How come we do not see any big plastic banners proclaiming: “Going out of Business Sale” strung across storefronts?
 
Indeed, shops are back in business; restaurants are so booming that one now needs a reservation almost every night. 
 
 
I would posit several reasons for this. Some temporal, others deeply embedded in the culture.
 
First, the Italian government, following the initial period of confusion and chaos that resulted in more than 30,000 deaths, put a plan into action. People were told to stay home. And they did.
 
We were allowed to shop for food but only one person per household at a time. Masks were required and people without masks were – and still are – given hefty fines. 
 
 
Italians were admonished to temporarily give up their natural propensity to hug and kiss upon greeting one another. They stopped and substituted the elbow bump. People saw the seriousness. And they saw they could take individual actions.
 
Even today, four months after the end of the lockdown, people are wearing masks and bumping elbows. But this hasn’t ended socializing in the least.
 
We have been to parties, dinners, lectures, and concerts and have met friends for drinks. People are simply more cautious and cognizant of their own behavior.
 
Italy successfully got the coronavirus spread under control following the initial outbreak. The efforts of Italy’s government and public during lockdown were praised by the World Health Organization. And while the number of new cases is now rising again, Italy’s infection rate remains lower than in many other European countries.
 
 
I believe something else is responsible for this besides government decrees. Something that is a fundamental part of the culture. Something that, at one time at least, the US had, but has sadly seemed to have lost in recent years.
 
That is a sense of community. Of our being responsible to each other. To make sure we aren’t harming others by our own individual actions. 
 
Since moving here, we have come to understand and appreciate something we really never saw as tourists. As a tourist, you are focused on the physical surroundings, the natural beauty, the charm of towns, the allure of the blue-green sea. 
 
As a resident, you build relationships. 
 
Relationships require both respect and some degree of affection. You are emotionally connected to another person enough to care about their health and well-being. That is essentially behind the heartfelt and intimate greetings that people give to one another every day.
 
But beyond the superficial manifestations, there is a richer, deeper sense of connection. We experience it every day. 
 
Being brought up in a different society, it is at times still startling. People genuinely want to help, want to see you happy, and offer advice or assistance if you need it. 
 
It is an enthusiasm for living with other people, knowing them, understanding their quirks, their preferences, their family members, their interests. 
 
 
These relationships get reinforced constantly, even if it’s only in a matter of minutes. A quick chat in a sidewalk café and I know our car mechanic is soon off on his seasonal hunting of birds. One of the local baristas calls out from her doorway and asks how I’m doing, knowing that I had a recent medical procedure. The woman at the bakery drops us a few extra sweet biscuits into the bag because she wants us to try them. We always exchange greetings with the older gentlemen who strolls along the streets each day. The sense of being part of a community is palpable.
 
People know that shopping locally helps their neighbors and their families. So shop they do, have friendly conversations, share latest news, and perhaps chat about an upcoming festival. 
 
Making purchases isn’t just a commercial transaction – an exchange of money for goods or services. It’s about reaffirming your connections with other people. 
 
Amazon may make an inroad into buying behavior. But it’s not going to change the culture.
 

Mark Hinshaw is a retired city planner who moved to Le Marche with his wife two years ago. A former columnist for The Seattle Times, he contributes to journals, books and other publications.

This is an edited version of an article which previously appeared on Seattle’s Post Alley.

 

Member comments

  1. I love Italy, my beautiful country and people. I’m so proud of being Italian.
    Thank you for this lovely article.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

TRAVEL: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

Ever visited a picture-perfect Italian village that felt too idyllic to be real? There's a reason for that, says reporter Silvia Marchetti.

TRAVEL: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

Italy’s many beautifully authentic, ancient villages are a major reason why foreigners flock here, fall in love with the lifestyle, and often settle down for good. 

But in some places, that ‘dolce vita’ feel can be so well-fabricated that it is just fake.

It might have happened to you that while visiting an apparently idyllic borgo, or village, you felt there was something totally off with it; be it the neat windows, the empty, shuttered houses, the lack of locals around. Maybe it was so picture-perfect it seemed unreal.

There are places that have been totally restyled and hence lost their soul, and are just mere tourist postcards that contribute to distorting the real image of Italy abroad. 

They appear to be medieval, but even if they do date back centuries they’ve been given such a thorough makeover that everything is tidy and shiny, giving you the impression of being on a movie set.

MAP: The ‘best’ Italian villages to visit this year

I’ve visited some of these villages, and what hit me was the attempt to recreate that ancient vibe just to fool visitors – while at the same time destroying what Italy’s authentic villages are all about.

Most have been elegantly restyled. This is positive given they might have otherwise ended up in the grave as ghost hamlets, but the extreme ‘maquillage’ has killed the original spirit of the place.

The ancient village of Castelfalfi, in Tuscany, dates back to pre-Roman, Etruscan times and is – was – a jewel. Following massive real estate investments it has turned into a luxury retreat for wealthy foreigners looking to bask under the Tuscan sun. 

Pretty as a picture – but where is everyone? Castelfalfi, Tuscany. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

During winter everything is shut, boutiques sell modern things and signs are written in English. The vast estate, formerly belonging to aristocrats, has been transformed into a huge golf club, and local residents are nowhere to be seen. There’s even a high-end restaurant in the castle tower for lavish meals. But no matter how beautiful it is, it gave me a feeling of sadness and emptiness.

I think places like this feed and recreate that stereotypical idea of a typical rural Italian setting, of elegant mansions with pools, ceramic boutiques and flower shops.

Nearby the village of Certaldo di Castro is another example of a fake old-style spot. It is indeed medieval and is famous for being the hometown of Italian poet Boccaccio: his museum-house is a must-see and the main highlight. You get to admire his room, bed, slippers and nightgown – that’s why I visited.

OPINION: Why Italy must put its forgotten ‘ghost towns’ up for sale – or risk losing them forever

But other than that, it seems like the whole village has been rebuilt solely on Boccaccio’s legacy – there are just a few bars, restaurants, and B&Bs. No real village buzz, no elders sitting on benches. Last time I went, and it was during Christmas, most places were closed and I ended up eating a panino. 

The reddish roads and brick tile roofs have been perfectly fixed as per medieval style, and the chapels are also stunning. But life seems to have been frozen in time when Bocaccio inhabited it.

Certaldo di Castro has impressive medieval history but no village life. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I recently drove hundreds of miles to explore what has been named as one of Italy’s most beautiful towns, Greccio. I found a ghost town.

It was perfectly renovated, but all shutters were down and not one single resident could be spotted. There were just holidaymakers having picnics on benches.

The streets were super clean. The stone walls were covered in paintings by local artists, hailing peace and friendship among countries; images that have nothing to do with the town’s old roots, nor character.

I must say it was a real disappointment. It surely is one of those places that come to life on weekends or during summer, when people visit. It is not ‘vissuto‘, as Italians would say, meaning it is not ‘lived’.

In the Tiber valley, the Calcata hamlet is a top destination for Romans looking for a weekend escape. The village is aesthetically charming, shaped like a giant mushroom jutting out of a deep green chasm. It’s perched on a reddish-brown hilltop overlooking a pristine river, with cave houses, moss-covered cobbled alleys, tunnels and wall openings overlooking a thick jungle-like canyon. 

READ ALSO: Mass tourism is back in Italy – but the way we travel is changing

But the original residents no longer live there and it’s become a ghetto of hippies and artists who each weekend come to turn it into an Italian-style Halloween village. Witchy objects, pumpkins and puppets are everywhere, while souvenir shops and boutiques sell weird, spooky amulets. Benches and doors are painted in bright colors and restaurants prepare exotic dishes.

This has killed the original old vibe, and though I love the scenery, I dislike the ambiance and village decor, which has nothing to do with its history.

Calcata is very similar to Civita di Bagnoregio, also in the Lazio region, dubbed the ‘dying city’ as soil erosion could make it crumble any day. 

Civita is world-famous for its dramatic scenery: sitting on a rock surrounded by a precipice, one single narrow bridge connects it to the mainland. I visited it several times: ten years ago it was lively. 

READ ALSO: Ten must-see places within reach of Rome

Two years ago, it was Easter, and I found a dead city. Just three locals going up and down the bridge, and a colony of hungry cats. It’s just luxury expensive B&B’s, taverns, souvenir boutiques and spots for selfie addicts. Artists and VIPs use it as their lair, yet despite its breathtaking beauty there’s really not much left.

I stayed the night once and ended up taking the car and driving to the nearest town for a slice of pizza for dinner because I couldn’t find an open trattoria.

If you can’t find so much as a single tavern open, no matter which day you visit, and if you don’t overhear some chit-chat among local grannies or some gossip at the bar, then you’ve likely landed in a ‘fake-authentic’ Italian borgo: perfect but unreal.

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