Photo by Adam Baker
“The Ladies’ Paradise”
I just finished reading the great novel “The Ladies’ Paradise” by Émile Zola (thanks, Noaa, for the recommendation). The novel tells about 1864-1869 French Paris, and reveals the story of the transformation Paris was going through during those days, making it the fashion capital of the world. The story revolves around one mega department store that changes the way goods are sold and slowly destroys the old traditional boutiques around it. It uses a vivid description of characters in the department store, the manager, the saleswoman and the clients together with love stories and social stories to describe the area and the great changes it brought.
It is so exhilarating to read a story written in 1883 (the edition I read was translated to English in 1886, which made a little bit hard to read) that describes human behavior in such a modern way. The main thing you recognize in the story is people’s resistance to change. The small boutique owners try reluctantly to fight the new mega stores, calling it names and describing it as a thieves’ place, instead of understanding that times are changing and that they need to follow. I think that there are many places in the world where the process described in the novel is happening right now. It is actually happening in Paris these days (Warning! Link in Hebrew).
Those who don’t get it
Globalization, progress and technology are reaching more and more places and keep changing even the farthest reaches of the world. The economy of the world is continuously changing to Knowledge Economy and today, some might even say to Conceptual Economy. However, the phenomenon the book describes is even more far-reaching. As mentioned above, the storyline focuses on the creation of mega stores using huge sales in order to make a small percentage of profit from a huge turnover thus lowering the prices and presenting goods that could never have been presented before. But the mega-stores are only an example for what always happens. There will always be new fashions, markets and ideas changing the world, there will always be a struggle between those who get it and those who don’t get it and try to resist. Why, this blog is a part of it. Some people just don’t understand the social media phenomena. But it is changing the world and those of us who would not join the ride would not survive.
A celebration of Capitalism
But I think that today, the importance of the book is even greater. It celebrates capitalism. When you read the book, you actually understand why capitalism will always win. When your fuel is human inventions and innovation there is nothing that can stop the machine. As you read the book, you slowly begin to understand that competition is the best way to create growth and to bring prosperity to the general public. You understand that free will and the lifting of all limitations on human creativity are the only ways to for us to advance as a society. Not that the novel portrays a perfect picture of capitalism. Quite the opposite. The kind of capitalism that you see in the book, and I guess was the ruling paradigm in France of that time, was without doubt cruel. Layoffs without notice. Horrible working conditions. No security whatsoever in the workplace. These are not things that I think we should go back to. It just makes you understand how human understanding of capitalism and its boundaries have evolved over time. Today’s credit crunch will probably be another step in the evolution.
The sufferings of the owners of the old boutiques watching their life work go to waste while not being able to do anything about it is also terrible, but it is a normal part of the business evolution. All throughout the book you get the feeling that Zola is trying to tell us that they could (and today still can) be prevented (this is also true today in a much larger scale. Humans act in irrational ways).
Humans will always remain the same
In addition to the above, the book is a must for every marketer and manager. It shows great thought and skill in understanding basic needs and behaviors of people and how to use the comparative advantage of every employee to create an advantage for the firm. It celebrates talent and life wisdom, showing that even the poorest can succeeded with hard work and intelligence. All of this only shows that technology and ideas might have changed, but human beings, will always be human beings. In Paris of the late 1800’s or in any other place in the world in the 21st century people will always be different, unique and interesting.
I enjoyed the book as a novel and a business book. I recommend you read it.