Sunday, 28 December 2008

Retail trauma

A phrase I've always hated is "retail therapy." The idea that buying things I neither need nor want strikes me as slightly bizarre. Watching shoppers in action sometimes makes me think that shopping is an addiction and that retail therapy is no more logical than "alcohol therapy" or "gambling therapy." Shopping is like alcohol and gambling in the way it lets some people leave their anxieties behind for a few hours. It's different in the way it creates clutter and landfill.

For years the government has promoted debt and spending. It didn't start under New Labour - the idea of a service economy, in which large numbers of people would sell luxuries to one another, began with Margaret Thatcher's unquestioning glorification of the market. Perhaps, as a shopkeeper's daughter, she could see only the objects that crowded the shelves of the grocer's store and not the hard work that produced them.

I enjoy luxury goods and services. I like fine soaps and good, fairly-traded coffee. I love sitting down in a coffee shop with a cup or bowl of coffee and reading the newspapers. But now I'm economising. I buy decent everyday soap. I go to a cafe perhaps once or twice a month and mostly read the newspapers on-line. Such economies mean shops will close and people will lose their jobs. Only young people believe that it's safe to spend - the anxiety about the economy hasn't hit them yet. But it will.

I headed into Nottingham for the sales. It was a mistake. The city was filled with exuberant crowds, rejoicing at their freedom from Christmas at home. They wandered through the streets, squares and shops. It was the last day of Woolworth and the crowds gazed at the empty shelves like tourists in a strange land. Teenage boys pointed and laughed at the few DVDs and games that hadn't sold, even with an 80% mark-down. Battered desks from the offices behind the store carried prices (£5 for a desk and chair) and SOLD stickers. Shop assistants mechanically rang up purchases and didn't smile. I watched a lad pick up items on the shelves and put them down. Then his hand moved to his pocket. Was he shoplifting? I wasn't sure and didn't know who would be damaged by such a small theft.

Elsewhere crowds flowed through shopping centres and aisles. I tried to look for the things I wanted: shoes, trainers, a warm jacket - possibly a pair of slippers. I stopped looking soon. Everyone knows there will be more reductions soon as further shops close. I can wait.

I couldn't tell if the sales were successful or not. There were plenty of people but queues at the check-outs seemed no longer than usual. And hardly anyone seemed laden with bags - some people seemed to have bought nothing at all. The gluehwein stall had few customers although skaters circled and twirled on the open air ice rink.

In the 19th century, when shopping became a popular leisure pastime, literary works warned of its dangers. In The Ladies' Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) Emile Zola described the seductive charms of the department store. And in Goblin Market, Christina Rossetti's mini-epic of sex and shopping, obsessive buying and consumption is a deathly danger. In both, women are at particular risk. This may say something about 19th century society and anxieties but, even now, shopping is seen as a particularly feminine indulgence. I've occasionally worried that my dislike of shopping (except for books and stationery) makes me unfeminine but I think women existed before shopping became a popular leisure pursuit. I'll be glad if I'm no longer expected to like shopping but I'll grieve for the loss of jobs - and for all those makers and shopkeepers urged - by government propaganda - to follow their dream into bankruptcy.

Note: If you're puzzled by the relevance of the illustration, it is one of Laurence Housman's illustrations for Goblin Market. Laurence Housman is largely forgotten these days but his career was far more interesting than that of his famous brother.


Pam said...

I'll return to 'Goblin Market pronto!I'm not a real woman..don't go all girly over shopping; dip out real quickly; can never find what I want or when I find it can't afford it. 'Pamper' is a bad word too. Just re-discovering all your new blogs-great writing!

kathz said...

Lovely to read your comments, Pam. I've been enjoying you poems on Heckle, especially The Frost-Tree (link to Heckle for other readers who may be interested is )