|Financial crisis: UK can't afford its shopping addiction anymore.|
|Britain has become a nation of shopaholics, but at last we might have to get to grips with the addiction.|
|Where does it come from, this almost hormonal drive to go shopping,
to buy and own more things?
|By Melanie McDonagh on 20 Nov 2008|
Shopping for Britain. It used to be a joke about free-spending women, that catchphrase.
But it's got a bleak undertone, now that economists and the Chancellor are telling us to spend our way out of recession. Will we, though?
The Bank of England declared this week that Britons are going off shopping as a "leisure activity". I wouldn't bet on it, myself.
Yesterday morning, I could be found in the local branch of M&S, hellbent on making use of Sir Stuart Rose's obliging discount of 20 per cent off very nearly everything.
And there were hundreds like me, women with a narrow-eyed determination to get their pre-Christmas bargains.
It did at one point cross my mind, clutching my three-for-two Christmas ribbon and Per Una underwear on my way to the wine section, that even with 20 per cent off the price of things, that still left 80 per cent to pay.
No matter; I stayed and queued and saved the grand total of £12.50.
When was it that shopping did become a leisure activity, taking over from family, sport, religion, dogs and loafing around with a book as the way people spend their time? More to the point, why did it?
The author Neil Borman, whose book Bonfire of the Brands documented his flight from brand addiction, has released a spoof film about indiscriminate shopping, The Good Consumer.
The voiceover at the start of it declares: "The good consumer is always buying new products. When he is not buying, he is earning money so that he can fund his consumption, or looking for purchases that he can make in future."
Yes, it's heavy handed. But it doesn't feel like a spoof so much as a sober account of the condition of England, recession or not.
A few weeks ago, the retail sector raised a couple of fingers to the credit crunch with the opening of the Westfield shopping centre: two miles worth of expensive shops in a part of London previously known for its proximity to Wormwood Scrubs prison.
The opening was a riot. Another two multi-billion-pound shopping projects kicked off this year – at Liverpool One and Bristol's Cabot Circus – on top of 10 rather smaller shopping-centre openings elsewhere.
And the retail spread is not stopping any time soon; the Westfield developers will be opening another shopping centre on the same scale in Stratford, East London, in 2012.
The recession has clipped our wings, but we're still buying things – although more and more of it is from Primark and Aldi.
Where does it come from, this almost hormonal drive to go shopping, to buy and own more things? Why do we do it?
Men hate it. Children hate it. The shoppers you see in department stores don't give any discernible sign that they're enjoying themselves – bookshops apart. There's something dead around the eyes.
But families will still take themselves off to Bluewater to spend their day of rest – theirs, if not the assistants'.
And if wandering from WH Smith to Scribblers to Boots to Debenham's makes them look like zombies, a working definition of hell would be the shopping centre Christmas sales.
Women queue up at five in the morning to save 50 quid at the Brent Cross Next sales. Why?
The social psychiatrist Oliver James, in his book, Affluenza, squarely attributed much of the high rates of mental illness in Britain and the US to consumerism.
"The Affluenza virus," he says, "is a set of values which increase our vulnerability to psychological distress: placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions... My explanation... is that the virus promotes Having over Being and the confusion (through advertising) of wants with needs."
It wasn't always thus, you know; shopping isn't part of the human condition.
The other week, I was in Walsingham in Norfolk, famous
for its shrine to the Virgin Mary. We pottered around the shops after
church and before the pub opened – but, this being Sunday, most shops
There weren't any chain stores; all the shops appeared to be independent or at least without identical branches in London, Glasgow and Manchester.
The retail equivalent of the M&S discount day will be tomorrow when the Catholic church holds its Christmas (sorry, Advent) Bazaar and the going price for most things will be around two quid.
But then in Walsingham, there is a life that doesn't revolve around shopping: you've got religion, riding, pubs to go to, walks to go on, Women's Institute meetings to attend. Lots of places were once like that.
Funny; it crossed my mind then that the super-luxe section of shops in Westfield is called The Village. Except that village is a parody of the real one.
Tamasin Doe, the former fashion director of Instyle magazine, pinpoints the start of shopaholicism around 25 years ago, during the Eighties, when shopping malls, which had already been around for a decade, began to spread and become a place for the young to hang out. The malls stimulated the collective shopping gland.
"You began," she said, "to be defined by how you shop, and everything else was depleted by it. Everything was defined by acquisition. Shopping became a way to recreate yourself."
The fashion cycle shortened; built-in redundancy became the essence of it, at least for women. The rise of low-cost production in China meant it became cheaper to buy new manufactured goods than to have the old ones repaired.
In fact, for some durables, such as computers, it wasn't actually possible to fix old models; they had to be replaced.
Politics came into it too, notably the 1994 Sunday Shopping Act, which lifted the curbs on Sabbath trading.
It had conscience clauses to prevent people being forced to work on the day of rest, but if you want to hear a not very nice laugh, ask your department-store manicurist or perfume saleswoman whether she can turn down work on Sunday.
At the same time, we got the cult of celebrity. Obviously, there have been pin-ups for the masses – society beauties and cult actors – for well over a century.
But Hello!-style celebdom, being famous for nothing at all, is a comparatively recent phenomenon.
And what celebrities do is shop and be seen to shop and give their endorsement to products that the rest of us can shop for. It's hard to think of images of Wayne Rooney's wife, Colleen, without armfuls of carrier bags.
The symbol and apex of the trend were the It Bags – big, phenomenally ugly handbags that cost from about £300 to £1,500 and had a life cycle of about six months.
Once Britain took to consumerism, it went all the way. Over the past 20 years, the retail sector absorbed 88 million square feet of new space – the equivalent, for those who think in terms of football pitches, of 1,200 of them.
Obviously, you can't have a shopping habit without paying for it – eventually. Because of the liberalisation of credit over the past couple of decades, personal indebtedness is higher in Britain than anywhere in Europe: consumer debt totals £1.5 trillion.
There was a time when, if you wanted to buy something, you had to save up for it. Ten years ago that was seen as almost risibly quaint. Now it looks like rather a sensible thing to do. The demutualisation of the building societies added to the problem.
Don't think I'm being snooty about all this. I was right in there and the upshot in my case is that I have, oh, six credit cards, which cost more to maintain than the baby.
Plainly, the recession has changed things. But only up to a point. One retail analyst, Verdict, estimates that retail-sector growth will fall to 2.4 per cent in 2008 – but that's after 10 years during which average annual growth was about four per cent.
Of the £228 billion we're likely to spend in the shops this year, an estimated £128 million is classed as non-essential, indulgence spending. Even if there's a fall in spending, it's from a very, very high base.
What's the solution? Well, how about going with the grain of the recession, of making do and mending? How about not shopping on Sundays?
Keeping perfectly good clothes even when the fashion roundabout has moved on? Spending time with the family at home? Saving up to buy things?
At the end of all this, we may come to remember that we're more than the sum of our possessions. And that would be a good thing.
The article is available at: