Tweet mysteries of life: How quaint 1997 seems
Pricewatch: Things we take completely for granted today would have been unimaginable to consumers 20 years ago
Twenty years ago – if you were lucky – you had a landline and if you didn’t you had to rely on a pay phone. There used to be queues at telephone boxes. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
So said the wise-beyond-his-years Ferris Bueller in the film which celebrated his day off. Ferris is now touching 50, his movie is – an absolutely terrifying – 31 years old and, if anything, the speed at which life moves has accelerated dramatically since it was first screened.
Unconvinced? Just look at this list of things most of us now take for granted that the consumers of 1997 would have found baffling.
Caught in the net: The way we communicate, govern, shop, learn, consume, read and even think has been radically and forever changed by the World Wide Web. Virtually all the technological advances that have been made in the last two decades would have been impossible had Tim Berners Lee not figured out a way to make the internet easier to use.
You’ve got mail: Remember the pleasurable sound of a letter plopping through your letter box? The anticipation as you raced down the hall to see who it was from? And what about the somewhat less pleasurable sound of a fax machines whirring into life to get urgent correspondence when you were in a place of business? Remember sending postcards home from abroad as a student or when you were on your holidays? Such things don’t really happen any more. Why would they when the cost of a stamp is now €1 compared with the cost of sending an email which is, effectively, nothing? And why would we wait for the post people to pick up and deliver our missives at a snail’s pace when we can send and receive lengthy emails in a heartbeat? Traditionalists may bemoan the loss of the letter and other more pedestrian forms of communication but – by any measure – email is brilliant, even if 99 per cent of all the mails we get are from LinkedIn or Nigerian princes with truckloads of cash to give away.
Video’s killed: If you are as old as Pricewatch, you will remember the 1980s, when only very flash folk had a video recorder, hardly surprising when you consider they retailed for about £500 – that’s pounds in the old money. Normal people could not afford to spend two weeks’ wages on such a luxury. Instead, we used to save up to rent video boxes from our local video stores – Clan Electrics in Galway in Pricewatch’s case. The deal was simple. You’d rent a video player and five videos for one night for a tenner. You’d then wander the video shop trying to find five films you be happy to watch in a single sitting and end up with two good ones, two average ones and one terrible film. It was both infuriating and intoxicating. Now we have Netflix, Sky’s NowTV, Disney’s new streaming service Disney Life, Amazon Prime, the legally grey set-top boxes and the utterly illegal downloads all at our fingertips.
Social media is brilliant, life-affirming, essential, exhausting and terrible
Streams: While the shift in our consumption of movies and TV has been profound, it is left in the ha’penny place by the transformation of the music industry over the past two decades. Music has danced from cylinders to 78s to 45s and 33s to cassettes, to CDs, to mini-discs to ones and zeros stored on your computer’s hard drive and MP3 player and then on to something even more ephemeral in the form of streamed sound. Now, with the likes of Spotify, you have millions of songs available to you on your phone, almost everything that has ever been recorded – from grand dames recorded singing 1930s’ blues classics in smoke-filled studios to Ariana Grande doing whatever it is she does. Are we better for all the choice? Is making someone a Spotify playlist the same as making them a mix tape? Does streaming the new album from The National have the same impact as caressing an album sleeve from the Velvet Underground sourced in some cool record shop in Dublin back in the 1980s? Hardly.
The social networks: Social media is brilliant, life-affirming, essential, exhausting and terrible. It is where almost all news breaks first and where it is disseminated fastest. It helps people make and keep connections and has acted as an agent of social change by helping to topple tyrannous regimes. It is also where lies and fake news thrive, where moronic trolls feed and where bullies act with impunity. It has created alternate realities in which otherwise decent people manipulate their pictures and their life story to make themselves and their world seem more glamorous. And it has given the Kardashians far more than the 15 minutes of fame they might otherwise have been afforded by the world.
Phone’s a friend: It is hard to imagine a time when we all weren’t so utterly dependent on our phones. Twenty years ago – if you were lucky – you had a landline and if you didn’t you had to rely on a pay phone. There used to be queues at telephone boxes. Can you imagine seeing a queue outside a phone box today? Can you remember the last time you even saw one being used? Now there are less than 900 public payphones across the whole State. In the 1990s, there were more than 4,000. Of the phone boxes still standing, most are used for less than a minute per day – or to put it another way, less than 0.07 per cent of the time.
In the 1990s, we would have struggled to identify an avocado but now we’re smearing it all over our toast like it was jam
Fewer than 200 million minutes of landline-to-landline calls are now made each month. That might sound like a lot but it compares to the one billion minutes of mobile-to-mobile calls made each month. And calls are not even the main thing we use our phones for anymore. We get our news from it, we control our finances from it, we talk and we text and we use it to send and receive emails and to post hilarious photographs of cats on leads on Instagram. We use them to work out what song is on the radio and to play Scrabble with random strangers in faraway continents. Our books and our music are stored on them and as soon as someone puts a video of someone falling on ice on the internet we can access it on our phones and share it with the world. Is it any wonder we are so addicted to the things? And remember when we used to have to memorise phone numbers? Hilarious.
Clicks and mortar: Online shopping is another key way our world has changed over the past 20 years, with the sale of everything from concert tickets and holidays to clothes and food now happening in the virtual space. Irish people spent about €9 billion online in 2016, with the spending set to grow to €14 billion by 2021. Hundreds of billions are spent all over the world each year. But online shopping is not as new as you might think. Its roots go all the way back to 1979, when a chap called Michael Aldrich devised a messaging system called videotext. It was the basis of Mintel, the first “mainstream” service to use telephone lines for consumer purchases. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that electronic shopping started to become a thing. And then it became the next big thing in 1995 when Amazon started selling books online. Three years later, PayPal was set up without a whole lot of fanfare but it was a game-changer and allowed transactions to happen without people having to share financial information with strangers. Today, we can find almost everything that has ever been produced anywhere in the world for sale and have it delivered to our homes in a matter of days. And we can pay for virtually everything by just waving our phones in the direction of cash registers.
Food for thought: Irish people have serious notions now when it comes to food. In the 1990s, we would have struggled to identify an avocado but now we’re smearing it all over our toast like it was jam. Superfoods have come and gone and come again and – otherwise normal – people think quinoa is an acceptable substitute for potato. Speaking of which, it is hard not to have sympathy for the poor potato. Despite the fact that it is cheap, easy to grow, incredibly good for you and very versatile, familiarity and bad press has seen it falling right down the pecking order in recent years. While our average annual consumption, at 85kg a person, is 2½ times higher than the world average, it is still dramatically lower than it was 20 years ago. In the 1990s, we ate an impressive 140kg per person. Today, only 70 per cent of the carbohydrates in our diet are supplied by the potato. In times past, it was in excess of 90 per cent.
Owning own-brand: Our love affair with supermarkets’ own-brand products is far from over, with sales jumping by almost 4 per cent compared to last year. All told, 54 per cent of the products found in the average Irish supermarket shopper’s trolley carry own-brand labels compared with less than 10 per cent before the economic crash a decade ago – in the 1990s the percentage of own-brand sold was closer to 5 per cent.
While the rise of the machines can speed things up, they can also be hugely frustrating
The German discounter revolution: In 1997, the names Lidl and Aldi were unfamiliar to most Irish shoppers. Then, in 1998, Lidl announced it was moving into the Irish market. A year later, the discounter was joined by Aldi. Initially, we didn’t take to them and we were reluctant to swap the branded products we loved for unfamiliar labels. We were faintly amused by the eclectic weekly specials on offer, but the allure of the jack hammers, flame throwers and big underpants was not enough to get us through their doors in big numbers. Then the bubble burst in the middle of the last decade and everything changed, and the growth of both retailers has been unstoppable ever since. The German discounters now have combined market share of almost 25 per cent and their growth rate is relentless. And speaking of relatively recent supermarket arrivals, Tesco has only operated in this country since 1997 too.
Unexpected rage in the bagging area: It is hard to imagine it now but there was a time when the phrase “unexpected item in the bagging area” was entirely unfamiliar to Irish shoppers. Self-scan shopping tills are now everywhere, as are automated lodgement machines in banks. While the rise of the machines can speed things up, they can also be hugely frustrating. Still, the technology behind self-service checkouts – which are now used by as many as 50 per cent of shoppers in big retailers – is getting better and we are getting better at using it.
Booze on the cheap: Almost everything we can think of has become dearer in the last two decades. Except for booze. Almost as soon as a ban on below-cost selling was lifted in 2006 , big supermarkets started using cheap booze to drive footfall. Before the euro changeover in 2002, a can of Budweiser in an off-licence cost about £1.55 (€1.97). Today, eight cans can be bought in your local Tesco for €11 – or €1.38 each. When alcopops were launched in the early noughties, they sold for about €3 each. Today they cost less than €1.50.
The return of the delivery: Daily and weekly food and other parcel deliveries were commonplace for much of the last century, with vegetable men, milk men, drapers and grocery shops taking the hassle out of the experience for many people. The practice disappeared in the 1970s and ’80s, only to return – sort of – in 2000, when Superquinn became the first Irish grocery retailer in Ireland to offer online shopping. Tesco quickly followed suit but the other big chains were found wanting, so the revolution was slowed. SuperValu has picked up the pace in recent times. The likes of Amazon, Asos and all the rest have completely transformed the shopping experience for most people.
Travel tales: From Ryanair to Airbnb to Trip Advisor and Google Maps and liquid restrictions and taking our shoes off at security checkpoints, there are few areas of our lives that have been transformed as much as travel. It is almost impossible to imagine a world without online booking now but the concept is barely 20 years old. In fact, one of the first mentions of the notion in this newspaper appeared under the headline “Myth of online travel bargains” and was published in July 1999. Months after the article appeared, Ryanair launched an online booking platform – a development that merited a single paragraph in this paper – and everything started to changed dramatically after that. Booking became easier, cheaper and a whole lot more reliable.
We also asked Twitter – that’s new – for examples of our changing world. Here’s just a selection of the responses
From 1997 the role of the internet has changed shopping, from the obvious Amazon’s etc to fingertip reviews and more direct advertising – Sean Burke
Male grooming – Jonathan Brannigan
Paying people to cut their lawns, wash cars, clean houses etc – Cronan Scanlon
Multiple shops per week versus one big weekly shop. Trend towards short trips with less to buy – Fiachra Maguire
We have become coffee snobs! – Julie Gurakan
Loyalty to one supermarket for weekly shop has disappeared and replaced by shopping around large chains for weekly offers – Angela Holohan
Disposable everything: clothes, electronics, utensils – Ellie O’Byrne
We have become a nation of coffee drinkers and buyers of prepared food – Martha Higgins