Why Netherlands is a bit boring when it comes to retail

When I spent 3 months in Netherlands in 2013, I was filled with fresh enthusiasm – I saw Netherlands offered what the UK could not. A flat rolling landscape of safe wealthy suburbia, connected by a network of empty bike lanes. A blank canvas where you can be anything you want and no one will notice or care.

Fresh, friendly Wageningen

So, in 2016 when I found myself in a relationship with a Dutch guy, employed by a Dutch firm and was growing increasingly indifferent about Scotland – it made total sense to make the big move.

There was nothing to lose, I could just sell my flat in Scotland and start my new life in happily-ever-after Netherlands.

It turned out I’d made 3 bad assumptions:

  • Its 2021 and I still haven’t sold the house
  • The relationship didn’t work
  • But most crucially of all – the Netherlands is not Leon’s utopia…

The most exciting thing about growing up in rural north east England circa 2010 was what I now see as its gradual morphing into mini-America. Malls like the MetroCentre and Eldon Square got regular facelifts with bowling alleys and arcades. Maybe one weekend a drive through Krispy Kreme that no one asked for would just appear. Retail parks were erected seemingly in the middle of the countryside with a 10 screen cinema and a shiny new Nandos. As an 18 year old with his first car and only a forced fondness of nightclubs, these were places you could drive to on a Friday night; park for free, eat cheaply, hang out with friends and rarely get bored.

This retail expansion continued as I grew up. When I lived in Aberdeen it wasn’t council policy or good buses that softened my world. It was the ASDAs and McDonalds that were stoically open for me at 5am after a lonely December nightshift. With hindsight I now see those Big Tasty meals were palliatives to my worsening SAD, and pushing my BMI to alarming new heights – but that doesn’t change how big or indeed tasty they were.

The remnants of romantic McDonalds for 1 – Aberdeen, 6pm 16th October 2016

Now I’ve always been suspicious that more people don’t feel the way I do about frivolous retail and fast food – then again it surprises me that people really tend to prefer the company of their family over a midnight drive to Tesco and on reflection this probably says more about me that it does about my friends’ ability to communicate their true preferences.

I hadn’t seen it first hand but I had a solid assumption that Netherlands must too have these retail parks, out of town malls and 24h hypermarkets if I just took my time to look for them.

You can therefore imagine my horror to find that countries are actually not all exactly the same as each other – and with these retail confections being so inexplicably important to me I might have made a grave error in my choice of new home.

What makes the Dutch different?

After 4+ years here now I’m just going to say it. Compared to the British:

  • 🕰 The Dutch are tight with time. Aka organised, you cannot go for a quick drink after work unless you planned it last week. Why? because they haven’t planned it with their partner! You’d be creating a ripple of inconvenience and upsetting the delicate balance for the other people in your colleague’s lives.
  • 💶 The Dutch are tight with money. You can’t get stuff for free, if you’re eating out expect to pay for water, ketchup and mayo. I’ve read anecdotes along these lines:
    • I went on a coffee date with a Dutch man only to receive a Tikkie request the next day for €2.40 for my half of the bill!
  • 😋 The Dutch are wary of indulgence. Just as they’re reluctant to spend time or money, they’re also reluctant to emotionally invest. A kind of aversion to passion, addiction or indulgence. Preferring moderation and pain tolerance; Dutch doctors will notoriously prescribe paracetamol for a migraine. This is usually seen as a Calvinist/Protestant attitude, I suspect its a northern European thing. I think this was helpful for gay rights where NL leads. Dutch culture would tell you to resist indulging your irrational homophobia; turning a blind eye is the more admirable, sensible and rational reaction to something you don’t like.

The Dutch are long term thinkers and meticulously engineer, groom and maintain minimalist perfection in their own life. They are rational, conservative and un-spontaneous. Of course this can be seen as boring to a 3x weekly binge-drinking Brit who goes where the weekend takes her, but there’s a lot to be said for consistency and conformity and I kind of like it. Their priorities are neatly in the right place.

This is why I think businesses built on selling you convenience and short term indulgence (Greggs, Pret, Costa) struggle or don’t exist in the Netherlands. These businesses are a massive chunk of the retail sector in the UK and as explained above, a huge source of personal joy.

A traditional Dutch person would likely judge themself harshly if they chose to spend €4 at the petrol station Starbucks machine.

They’re much more likely to see that luxury, wasteful coffee dispenser and then create a mental plan to brew their own coffee at home and carry it in the car for their commute from tomorrow.

I can’t find the quote but I read once something along the lines of: “the Dutch don’t give money to the homeless, but if they notice a homeless man in their area they’re more likely to go home and donate to a homeless charity”. I’ve cross checked this with Dutch people and they agree this describes Dutchness quite well.

This careful insistence for structural integrity permeates the culture and makes sense if you consider how necessary this attitude was to build the Netherlands in the first place – much of the country is below sea level:

Anyway the downside of this attitude leaves me with a recurring frustration even after 4 years in the Netherlands and I want to share my thoughts here just to make some sense out of it. It’s not something other people make a lot of noise about but its important to me.

There’s so much more I can say about these cultural differences, but I’m not sure how sensible it is to go on about it. In other articles I’m going to find the stats and put some some numbers on the retail differences to basically prove to myself that this is not just some kind of prejudicial illusion I have.

If you read this and you think I’m being too harshly judgemental or over-generalising please let me know.

Until then, bye for now!

Bye!

Leon

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