5 Notes From the Underground Car Park
Academics, in the main, are a pretty rum bunch. Hypocrites to a man and unprepossessing pedants to everyone else, they rabbit on about the so-called ‘community of scholars’ whilst stabbing each other in the back at every available opportunity, albeit the real opprobrium is reserved for those who break silence on their incessant intellectual back-stabbing. They gambol sycophantically at the feet of the movers and shakers of their field, lord it over those one rung lower on the ladder of cerebration and, as for doctoral students and arriviste disciplines, well what can you say about such unspeakables? After all, speaking about the unspeakables is to render them speakable and that would never do.
Academics, moreover, claim to have read -- and rigorously evaluated, naturally -- everything of worth in their discipline. Mind you, if ‘read’ is defined as having checked the list of references to see if they’re cited, then they probably have. Many, in fact, unfailingly manage to magnify the minuscule, in that they talk in grandiose terms about the advancement of science, the betterment of the human condition and, in all modesty, the centrality of their own research within this on-going altruistic endeavour, even though their highly restricted intellectual regimen, their scholarly scotoma, their minute area of expertise, enables them to do nothing of the sort. A life spent shedding pseudo-light on non-problems, as Kingsley Amis cogently comments, hardly qualifies one to pontificate on its ultimate meaning.1
Not that I’m pontificating, or anything.
Alongside this endearing combination of intellectual arrogance and rampant egomania academics are frequently blessed with a bizarre streak of self-loathing, offset by peeropathic propensities. On the one hand, they openly acknowledge the severe, almost fatal, shortcomings of their own research endeavours - presumably in the mistaken belief that self-criticism magically makes the difficulties disappear - and, on the other hand, they unremittingly rubbish the efforts of their peers for failing to meet acceptable standards of scholarship. Happily, there’s always something about a rival’s research that can be condemned from the comfortable cabalistic cocoon of the senior common room or over a hard-earned snifter on Friday evening: lack of background reading, poor problem formulation, flawed survey design, statistical self-abuse, terribly badly written or, if all else fails, a blatant put-up job by the journal, whose editor is a friend, a very close ‘friend’ (nod, nod, wink, wink), of the author.2
Perhaps the favourite focus of academic nit-picking, however, is the sampling process. The inherently aleatory character of sample surveys is sufficient to ensure endless opportunities for belittling one’s competitors. Thus samples are inevitably too small, too restricted, too diffuse, too parochial, too unbalanced, too aberrant and, above all, too studenty. Personally, I have never understood academics’ deep-seated antipathy to student-only samples. Granted, they are a loathsome crew of arse-licking belly-achers (as indeed are academics), but compared to ‘real’ consumers, who are invariably cantankerous, all too easily distracted and often need to be slapped about a bit before they take the research project sufficiently seriously, students are veritable paragons of virtue. I mean to say, they are ready, willing and able to answer most of our idiotic questions, otherwise course credit will be denied them, or their exam performances are prone to prove inexplicably disappointing. Students, what is more, are not only a large and high spending market in themselves, but they are often in the throes of a significant life transition, where their personalities, possible ‘selves’ and indeed consuming habits are being actively shaped (translation, the buggers refuse to make up their minds). Hence, it is incumbent upon us to understand this repellent rabble -- inarticulate, insolent, indolent, intimidating and downright ignorant though they indubitably are. Researchers who concentrate upon ‘real’ consumers, whatever that means, are reneging on their responsibilities, quite frankly, and ought to be ejected from the hallowed halls of the marketing academy. Forthwith. Forcibly, if need be.
Fortunately, one or two redoubtable researchers are ever ready to enter the undergraduate lair in order to examine the consuming passions of its hirsute habitués. In a moment of madness, I instructed a fetid pride of final year marketing students to write introspective essays about their shopping behaviour. True, it required liberal use of the whip and, with only a rickety professorial chair for protection, I consider myself lucky to be alive. Placing my head between the halitotic jaws of a final honours class is not the smartest move I’ve ever made, but never let it be said I’m unwilling to suffer for my art.
Anyway, there were more than one hundred of the brutes and, cowed into submission by my natural air of authority (maybe it was my manic stare or possibly my promise to fail them all if they failed to comply - yeah, you’re right, it was the racking sobs and heartfelt pleas for help that swung it), they managed to produce surprisingly coherent accounts of their personal shopping experiences.3 Introspection, admittedly, may come easily to young people on the cusp of adulthood, when self-preoccupation and ‘person’ pre/suffixes seem to assume particular importance (personality, personal appearance, interpersonal skills, personability etc.), yet their compositions averaged an astonishing 2000 words. More astonishing still was the remarkable fact that many of these words were multi-syllabic, and some were even in the right order.
No, I’m not making this up, their introspective essays were really quite superb and, as shall shortly become apparent, uncommonly insightful. You may not agree, of course. Indeed, you may be one of those strange people, like myself, who finds huge slabs of semi-digested interview transcript very difficult to swallow. Thus, the next few chapters are designed to be read with or without the supporting quotations. If you take what I say on trust -- more fool you – stick to the body text. If you require proof, however, the accompanying quotes give some sense of the introspective accounts. For every excerpt, it almost goes without saying, I have several others that make a broadly similar point. Jeez, you should see some of the stuff I cut out.
Be that as it may, perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of our essayists’ reported behaviour is their manifest hatred of shopping, albeit this particular sample may be slightly more antipathetic than most. After all, it contains a large number of men, who are often, though not invariably, shopaphobic. Many of the reported behaviours, moreover, refer to Christmas shopping, which is inherently, though not inevitably, stressful. And it cannot be denied that my respondents’ comparative lack of shopping expertise may have rendered them more aware of their marketplace maladroitness than might otherwise be the case.
(Notice how I’m openly acknowledging the shortcomings of my research in a transparently obvious attempt to ingratiate myself, gain your confidence and soften you up for the subsequent scholarly side-step -- recognisable by the use of conjunctive adverbs like ‘although’, ‘however’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘despite’ and ‘notwithstanding’ -- which enables me to report severely flawed findings with a straight face. If that fails, of course, I’ll be forced to pretend that we’re all in this together by use of the first person plural or, if the worst comes to the worst, openly acknowledge my acknowledgement of failure in a pre-emptive parenthesised aside. That always works a treat.)
Although our data are by no means perfect, however, they nevertheless enable us to extract several very important lessons concerning late-twentieth century consumer culture (despite and notwithstanding minor methodological failings). Yeah, perhaps that’s a bit much. How’s about ‘they raise a few interesting issues relating to contemporary buyer behaviour’? No, you’re not falling for it? Hmmm, can you live with ‘they identify a couple of desultory talking points on shopping aversion’? Bastards! Okay then, you leave me with no alternative but to opt for, ‘they tell us nothing we don’t already know but we’re reporting the findings anyway’. Happy now?
So, what did our informants dislike about shopping? Well, seeing you’re so smart, you tell me. Come on, spit it out. Is it that difficult to guess? Has your vast experience of going shopping taught you nothing? Do you close your eyes when you hit the High Street? Have you ever ventured beyond the confines of your study? You really believe everything you read about consumer society? Are you one of those figments of the sociological imagination, the love-to-shop shopper? Are you a consuming rabbit -- promiscuous, reproductive and transfixed in the headlights of late capitalism? Are you, God help us, a guerrilla fighter of post-Marxian marketing? You know the type - subversive, arch, knowing, smug, not taken in, advertisers-can-fool-all-of-the-people-some-of-the-time-and-some-of-the-people-all-of-the-time. But not me!
Whatever you say, pal.
It may surprise you to hear this, but our introspectors hated pretty much what everyone else hates about shopping. First exhibit: our old friend the recalcitrant trolley. I know I’ve discussed this topic at length already but there’s always plenty of mileage in trolley stories (not straight line distance, I grant you). Indeed, if consumption were stand-up comedy, truculent trolleys would be the equivalent of mother-in-law jokes, knock-knock riddles, Englishman-Irishman-Scotsman stories and the one about the bloke who walks into a bar with a plastic, blow-up doll under his arm. What, you haven’t heard the one about the guy who goes into a bar with a plastic blow-up doll under his arm? Jesting aside, however, the sad fact of the matter is that trolley tales loom large in the post-industrial psyche. Consider the following far from atypical examples:
If I’m lucky I have a £1 coin to obtain a vehicle called a ‘shopping trolley’ supplied by the store, but I wish, just once, someone would have the intelligence to service them. Nearly all the ones I have used pull to the right, pull to the left, squeak, or have one wheel which wants to defy the laws of gravity, physics and science by deciding to go in a different direction from the other three. If I am lucky I will have a tissue in my bag to dry the raindrops off the handle of the trolley before I start my adventure.
My mother and I were shopping in Wellworth; she for the usual household paraphernalia, and I for a hoard of junk food just prior to beginning the university semester, so naturally we took separate trolleys. Mum started to wheel a trolley down towards the food hall, but left it back and chose another, complaining that the other one squeaked too much. As she strolled into the supermarket sunset hand-in-hand with her trolley, I decided to buy my cigarette supply before starting my spree. I then went to grab a trolley, but unwittingly picked the squeaky trolley my mum had left back. However, the trolley from Hell did not begin to squeak until I’d reached the food hall and was in the second aisle after choosing my fourth packet of Bachelor’s Pasta ’n’ Sauce. It didn’t just squeak; it shrieked and squealed with such ear-piercing regularity, just about every customer turned to give me a withering glance. I tried going slowly - it droned. I tried going quickly - it screamed. I couldn’t win. With a face as scarlet as the tomatoes in my trolley, I decided to lift the offending rear wheels about an inch off the ground. Apart from the obvious strain, this was quite effective, until the trolley became more laden with goods, when I completely forgot myself and let the rear wheels fall to the ground with an almighty reverberating crash. I simply wanted to die...and then, enter my mother with her pearls of wisdom: ‘Didn’t you know that was the trolley I left back?’ Of course I knew, mum, I just decided to embarrass myself and annoy all the other shoppers for lack of better things to do.
Reluctant as I am to impose a modicum of order on these deeply disturbing trolley traumas, it is clear that such tales of trolley woe comprise variations on a small number of themes. There is the ‘squeak to me only with thine aisles’ trolley, the shopping cart that tries to communicate with its controller. Gentle groans and endearing gurgles give way to cries of pain, which culminate in blood-curdling shrieks of anguish as the acquisitions inexorably pile up. Such proto-linguistic utterances, admittedly, may mean little more than ‘balance the load, mate’, ‘watch where you’re going’, ‘no overtaking on the inside’ or, ‘Jesus, those spuds are a ton weight, sunshine, give us a break’, but it behoves us to crack the trolley code, to learn the trolley lingo, to translate the trolley argot, to interpret the inarticulate speech of the cart. Where’s the Rosetta Stone of shopping when you need it? Come back, Gregory, all is forgiven.
Then, of course, there are the ‘attention-seeking’ trolleys, the ones that develop mysterious ailments -- dead wheel, wobbly wheel, wheel lock, spinning wheel and the like -- as the shopping expedition unfolds. Frankly, I suspect that these hypochondriacal symptoms are a manifestation of deep-seated masochistic inclinations. They may be the maltreated pit ponies of the fin de millennium but a blind man can see that they want to be broken, thrashed, cursed and generally mistreated. They yearn to be mastered, dominated and roundly abused. They love it, believe me.
Another all-too familiar breed is what can only be described as the ‘magnetised’ trolley. No matter where you point it, the critter automatically turns due north. Fine for trolley-trekking across the steppes to the nearest Safeway, useful when traversing the tundra to a late-opening Tesco or ideal, doubtless, if Iceland Frozen Foods is your final destination. It also helps explain why everyone, irrespective of their initial shopping intentions, invariably ends up staring blankly into the in-store freezer cabinets. Some wacko UFO-logists, moreover, maintain that there is a take-me-to-your-leader quality about trolleys’ patent homing instinct (notice how they’re shaped like a satellite dish, the wire mesh is clearly a reconfigured aerial and the ultra-sonic squeals suggest some form of dialogue with the Mother Ship). However, the scientific establishment assures me that trolley polarity is a perfectly natural phenomenon which, while problematic for novice shoppers, exhibits an entirely predictable periodicity. Phases of the moon and all that.
Indeed, this lunar influence may account for the final twist on the trolleython of terror, chariot of consumption, perambulator of penury, push-cart of covetousness, if you’ll pardon the expressions. I refer, of course, to the skitty trolley, the coquettish trolley, the rogue trolley, the demented trolley, the mad bastard trolley, the demonic trolley. You know, the one with a mind of its own, the one that takes possession of certain defenceless people - OAPs, children and angry young men in the main - and goes on the rampage. It speeds up, slows down, swerves without warning and, in a wild bull-run of Pamplonaesque proportions, forces innocent bystanders into taking evasive action. Patently this has something to do with their mating season, the indicators of which include stickiness to the touch, reluctance to be disengaged from the trolley in front and incessant head-to-head clashes between dominant male trolleys at the deli. counter. Rutting season in the shopping-cart reserve is no joke, take it from me. All those ferromones floating around. Trolley trappers, trolley wranglers, trolley keepers and trolley tranquilliser dartsmen are the unsung heroes of our time. Trolley whisperers are worth their weight in gold cards.
Now, you don’t need me to tell you that there’s more than a touch of the urban myth about these tall trolley tales. We’ve all heard the absurd stories about the Abominable Trolley, lots of tracks, blurred photographs and dubious ‘sightings’; the Carnivore Trolley, hides in the branches of trees and pounces upon inattentive passers-by; the Tarantula Trolley, weaves a web of fine wire mesh and sucks every penny out of its innocent victims; and, not least, the Great Queen Trolley, the Ur-Trolley, the She-who-must-be-obeyed Trolley, the Boadicea of shopping trolleys, which comes complete with scythes on the wheel hubs - perfect for cutting a swathe through busy Saturday afternoon crowds at Sainsbury. Everyone knows, moreover, that the Hound of the Trolleyvilles, the Loch Ness Trolley, the Weretrolley, the Frankentrolley, the Freddietrolley, the Headless Trolley, the Phantom Trolley, the Ghost Trolley, the Goblin Trolley are just figments of over-active postmodern marketing imaginations. Mind you, they’re not called Troll-eys for nothing.
The same, however, cannot be said about the second primal fear of our superstitious consumers. Scoff if you like but it is an established scientific fact, a veritable law of nature, that slow as all queues unfailingly are, the ‘other’ queue always moves faster.
Now came the fun bit, trying to pay for the goods and leave. The queue stretched half way up the middle aisle and to say it was moving slowly would be a gross understatement. There were children in front of me crying about getting home in time for Christmas and the old lady behind was asking for volunteers to witness her last will and testament.
We finally make the choice of check-out, taking our position in the queue which seems to be moving the quickest. Surprisingly enough though, as soon as we join the queue, the other check-outs seem to move quicker than ours, which appears to have come to a standstill. Why does this not surprise me?!
Messages gathered, I face another dilemma - checkout queues. Which queue should I join? I feel due to having only six items, the ‘ten or less’ is my best bet. Bad move. As I stand at the ‘express checkout’, I cannot help but notice that every single other queue seems to be moving at a much faster pace than my own. Trolleys of goods are being scanned at a heightened pace, leaving the ‘baskets only’ eating their dust.
Apart from the celebrated line-you-join-instantly-grinds-to-a-halt axiom, it is equally well established that the person in front is always a malformed or malodorous monstrosity, who claims to be a long-lost cousin. What’s more, you invariably remember that there’s something you’ve forgotten to buy or you see something you wish you’d seen before making your decision. And, you can rest assured that some asshole further up the line is trying desperately to beat the system.
Standing behind yet another granny in Argos, the slowness of her pondering in the pages of the catalogue was beginning to bother me. She appeared to have absolutely no sense at all, pausing at kitchen equipment, mumbling to herself and then suddenly, almost erratically, flicking to toys, then jewellery, then back to kitchenware. This fact began to make me believe that she was a few sandwiches short of a picnic. A fact that I confirmed in my mind when I noticed she was wearing a pair of yellow wellies and blue tights and her clothes which smelled of piss, quite frankly. Finally she moved and walked out of the store, zimmerframe and all, which made me feel quite sorry for her, in a strange sort of way, even though she had kept me waiting for about ten minutes and had totally annoyed my head.
I get so bored standing waiting in inexorably long queues, that I gaze around the shop, lo and behold, there is the perfect present for Aunt Matilda. But, there is no way on this earth that I am leaving this queue, which by this time has stretched twice around the shop, to get the item. This must be the ultimate frustration, and I will end up saying to myself, ‘I just cannot be bothered. I’ll get her a pair of tights!’
As I turn around a man at the far end of the counter shouts for service. The girl hesitates at first and then goes over to serve him. He has got a list in his hand which he shows to the girl. I want to say something about him jumping the queue, but he’s built like Evander Holyfield, and he looks like he’s in a hurry and in a foul mood about having to do the family shopping. I decide to wait my turn rather than give this guy the pleasure of brightening up his shopping trip by re-arranging my face.
Moving, moreover, from one queue to another is the worst mistake you can make, as is not moving from one to the other. For the ancients, Hell was a never-ending checkout line. Today, we now know that E = M C2 (where E = ‘explosion’, M = ‘movers’, C2 = checkouts with more than two people in line). You want proof?
I hate this, one checkout open, big queue. Come on! Come on!! Don’t they realise that people hate standing at checkouts...Time passes, I wait again, and again. Thank goodness, only two people in front of me. Shit, now they open up another checkout. I hadn’t noticed. Should I try the new checkout? Damn, the people behind me have got there already. ‘He who hesitates...’ The waiting game continues. Eventually I get to the checkout.
As it was a busy Friday afternoon, it came as no surprise and no less of an annoyance that each checkout had lengthy queues. All were generally the same, so I joined the nearest one...and waited. Unfortunately, my mother has other ideas and scans up and down counting each line and I even think, the amount of items in their trolley...Surprisingly, my mother is not the only one who is trying to queue jump. I stand in amazement as people move to and fro between lanes only to end up back in the same lane. For me, the other lane always does appear to be moving quicker but if I moved my lane would also, so I’m quite happy to remain where I am. With this in mind I become very vindictive and take great satisfaction when the lady in front moves to the next lane in a vain hope of gaining a few extra seconds. It’s like a grand prix with everyone willing the person in front to hurry up, nearly to the extent of helping each other load the goods. Our team has a late burst for the line and I pass the stricken woman on the last bend to win the psychological race. Glancing out of the corner of my eye I can see the scornful look on her face as she realises where she would now be had she not been so impatient.
Far be it for me to criticise the scientific establishment. God knows, the achievements of modern marketing science have been bounteous and manifold - Alcopops, Pot Noodles and Pop Tarts, to name but three of the most titanic commercial triumphs of our times. But it seems to me that scientific explanations of checkout comportment don’t go far enough. A higher power is patently at work. Above and beyond the entirely predictable, some would say fated, horrors of standing in line, the real nightmare usually begins when it is almost over. Just when you think the end of the oppressive queue is in sight, the promised land of pack ’n’ wrap is beckoning and the magic words ‘next customer please’ are finally enunciated or, as often as not these days, materialise on a till-side digital screen, the shopping abyss suddenly opens and swallows you whole. The Styx of consumption is not so easily crossed, my friend, and paying the checkout ferry operator - inevitably called Sharon - is far from straightforward. The twist in the tail of the till story invariably involves some kind of mechanical breakdown, systemic fault, maleficent other or good old-fashioned arithmetical miscalculation.
By the time Sharon and I reached the front we went to one of the two tills in operation, and the cause of the hold-up became apparent. The checkout system was not your straightforward, electronic-point-of-sale scanner, but instead a computer system which required codes from each item to be entered manually. Fine for stock control and other management objectives, but not a lot of good to the discerning Christmas shopper.
I went to the cash desk to pay for my dress. The person behind the counter looked very worried. ‘We are having a few problems with the till’, she said, ‘it should only take a few minutes to fix. Great, it could only happen to me, I thought! Ten minutes had passed and the four people who had congregated around the till still could not get it to work. Why do I like shopping so much, I thought to myself? One of the assistants behind the counter suggested that everyone in the queue should go to the back cash point and pay. I got to the back of the shop eventually, after dodging the crowds. When I got to the cash desk it seemed that all the customers who were behind me before were now in front of me.
After what seems ages, it’s my turn. I lift the items out, put then onto the conveyer belt, the girl bleeps them through the scanner and rings the total into the till. Good Lord. £42.90. What? The sweat breaks on me. Have I enough money? I search frantically in my purse. I know I shouldn’t have bought the crisps, chocolate, coke or chicken olives. Now it’s too late. There is now a queue of people behind me. Are they all looking at me? Twenty, Thirty, Thirty-five, Forty. Well, that’s all my notes gone. I open the zip of my purse. Forty-one, Forty-two, Forty-two fifty, Forty-two sixty, Forty-two seventy, Forty-two eighty - Oh God, please let me have it. Eighty-five, Eighty-seven, Eight-eight, Eighty-nine, NINETY. Phew. Thank God. But I’ll have to go to a bank as soon as possible, as the 1p left in my purse is the only money I possess.
Actually, if truth be told, the lobotomised longeurs of standing in line or the checkout dialectic of raised expectations/abyssal plunge (from orgasmic high to suicidal low at the flick of a Switchcard), pale by comparison with the most heinous variant of the line to end all lines. I’m talking about the queue for the changing rooms. Whereas lines at the checkout hold out the prospect of eventual relief, lines for changing rooms are certain to end in a cubicle of tears. Changing rooms, communal changing rooms in particular, are universally loathed. Like an inverted Tardis, they are smaller than they seem from the outside, their fixtures and fittings are hopelessly inadequate, they are stuffy, over- or under-heated and asphyxiatingly claustrophobic, their curtains have a primordial fear of closing properly and the mirrors, if there are any, are manifestly on loan from Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey.
The things that sort of exasperate me about shopping include...changing rooms that are communal (who wants to see my rolls of fat?), are too small (I have acquired countless bruises while trying to demolish minuscule cubicles), have curtains that must have shrunk in the wash and I am convinced that the mirrors are different from the one in my bedroom, because I certainly look different in them.
Fortunately, most of the cubicles were empty and I had the opportunity to try several before finding one where the curtains aspired to cover more than 70% of the gap. A single hook was thoughtfully provided on which to hang my coat, jumper, jeans and the yet to be purchased suit. My own clothes were consigned to the floor. With a gap of about two inches either side of the curtains, I felt but failed to look like a Chippendale with stage fright. Then, thankfully, it was all over and two discoveries had been made. The jacket was too small and the trousers too big. I couldn’t go through it again. A larger jacket and smaller trousers were chosen, then I approached the till.
Worse still, when the self-abusive ritual of undressing-dressing-undressing-dressing (watch, retch, repeat for each garment) is finally over, the unspeakable ordeal of queue, pray, pay is just about to commence. It is little wonder that many people prefer to buy nothing rather than wait in line or purchase garments without trying them on, even though a wardrobe of expensive, ill-fitting, all-consuming sartorial resentment eventually accumulates.
Progressing through the store in the direction of the changing room, my mood changes, as the queue is long and the heat suffocating. Having a hatred of communal changing rooms at the best of times, I check the waist size and hold the trousers against myself for the length, convincing myself that they will fit. I would do anything to avoid availing of this service, so before I have any second thoughts I pay for them immediately.
When shopping for clothes I might look around for hours and chat about clothes till I am blue in the face, but when it comes to trying them on in the shop I tend to be in and out of the changing rooms in 5 seconds. It seems strange but I have a kind of fear of changing areas. It’s like the curtain doesn’t pull the whole way across, I might have smelly feet without shoes on and I more times than not start to feel intense heat and sweat like mad. I don’t think I can get my original clothes on quick enough, no matter how nice the new ones are. I can take a guess and say I bought a lot of clothes without actually seeing them on me in the shop!
Although changing cubicles are clearly torture chambers in camouflage – a touch of tulle doesn’t fool anybody -- the shopping SS has may other ways of making us squawk, most of them malign. Retailing milieus are replete with little irritations and minor niggles that conspire to reduce even the most inveterate shopaholic to an abstemious, clean-living, teetotalling, card-carrying, wagon-mounting member of the Shopping Temperance League.
Consider, for example, the old shopping-coupons-cum-discount-card dodge, a quondam scam certain to infuriate all but the most comatose consumer.
Special offers are great marketing ideas to get people into the store but they greatly reduce the efficiency at the other end. As my mother pulled individual pieces of paper from her handbag with great money-saving promotions like 7p off a tin of John West Salmon, I could feel six or seven pairs of eyes burning into the back of my neck...Eventually it is all processed and a great saving of 96p is achieved. If I had known that I would have given her the money. Still, the process continues, first a swipe with the credit card and a pause for the print out. As one card is passed back another is handed over, this time to receive the appropriate Air Miles. At this stage my patience is exceeded and I walk away with the groceries. The points of sale are efficient in their job but the incentives offered by the management have done away with the concept of quick, efficient service.
Then there’s the classic sensory deprivation and disorientation stratagems. You know, confusing layout, unnatural lighting, aural assault and battery, tactile affront and, the unquestionably hackneyed yet still effective, derangement through rearrangement manoeuvre. The latter, indeed, range from simple yet deadly switch-and-bait tactics to complete reconfiguration of the store layout.
Right, where’s the coats? Oh, they moved the fucking rack. Where is it? This is Dunnes, nothing moves in Dunnes, not even the staff. Where the hell is it? Where is it? I felt like I was exploding, going out of my head. Get me out of this fucking store. I’ve heard the same music for the past three weeks. It’s driving me crazy.
On entering the store I was surprised by the cluttered layout and the seeming lack of organisation in the store. The interior of the outlet was quite dark, which obviously made it difficult to ascertain the colour/texture of any given garment. As I walked around the outlet I knew I wasn’t viewing the garments at their full potential and I felt it was perhaps more hassle than it was worth sifting through tightly packed products and knocking over several more in the process!
As I walked through the door of Debenhams, scanning the overhead graphics, there appeared to be a strong element of merchandising mayhem. The vision before me was an assortment of synchronised flashing lights intertwined with highly ornate Christmas trees, stock from all departments strewn throughout the aisles, shelving and walkways, and shoppers scurrying rapidly like ants from pillar to post in search of the ideal gift...Hastening my pace, I tried in vain to locate the menswear department, and from what I had seen, it wouldn’t have surprised me to find it in amongst ladies hosiery and the Clarins counter. The place was a shambles, everything everywhere. On spotting an idle sales advisor by the changing facilities, I walked over to her, requesting her assistance, a mere direction. Asking her very politely where the menswear department was, she responded with ‘Down the escalators’, in her best West Belfast accent. Hadn’t she ever been taught the concept of customer care?, I thought angrily. Down the fuckin’ escalators! It fuckin’ well took me a hard enough look to find her, but what the hell, what’s another half-hour wandering aimlessly on the ground floor?
In certain respects, indeed, the most interesting of these instruments of torture are aural. Yes, we all appreciate that shoppers respond instinctively to the tempo of piped music and there’s nothing like ear-splitting volume or Julio Iglesias to stop bloody customers from cluttering up the place.
While standing waiting for my turn, the grim realisation dawns on me that the chronic Daniel O’Donnell song that was playing leads to yet another chronic croon in his dulcet tones. My worst nightmare has come true and I can’t escape the Daniel O’Donnell compilation tape until I have finished my shopping. What an incentive to move quickly - who is responsible for this dire taste in music?
Who chose that music that they are playing over the Tannoy? I really do not like that RAVE music. Do they want me to hurry along the aisles to the beat of that music and do my shopping in ten minutes. Why can’t they just play slow soft music and let me wander idly up and down the aisles?
But the introspective essays also hint at the disconcerting effect of absolute silence and demonstrate the importance of affect. In addition to basic likes and dislikes, such as (say) the machismo-marinated mellifluousness of a high-performance sports car, or the aural pollution of ‘seasonal’ songs at Christmas, there’s the issue of perceived appropriateness. That is, sounds which are considered out of place or ‘clash’ with the rest of the in-store environment.
I’m on the wander again. Good displays in here but the shop is so quiet, no background music. I always feel intimidated in here, but I’m not sure why!
[A]s I aimlessly browsed through the most recent album releases, I was aware of soft, gentle Christmas music being piped throughout the store. A contradiction to the way of the actual shoppers. A choice of ‘welcome to the jungle’ or death metal music at ear-drum bursting decibels would have fitted in better with the chaos surrounding me.
On my long journey down to Top Shop, I realised that the atmosphere wasn’t quite right. The happy tune of Slade’s ‘Well, I wish it could be Christmas every day’ blasting out over the town, wasn’t quite reflecting the mood of the few miserable faces that I’d seen. I empathise with you all. At that moment, I wished there was no such thing as Christmas. Bah! Humbug!
Now, let’s not get too social scientificy, intriguing-findings-more-research-is-necessary about all this, albeit the contrasting reactions of men and women to hard and soft flooring materials are really quite striking. It’s dangerous ground we’re on and, lest care is taken, we’ll soon be acknowledging that shopping has its moments of quasi-pleasure and, before you know it, we’ll be back at our shopping ’til dropping point of departure. And that is simply not permissible.
Obviously your anti-shopping resolve needs to be stiffened at this stage in the proceedings and you leave me with no choice but to play my transportation Ace, my getting there Joker, the Royal Flush, beats-all-comers card that is car parking. True, I know this teeters on the brink of textual sharp practice and I realise that, strictly speaking, car parking problems are not part of the shopping process per se, although we all know it is an loathsome yet obligatory ancillary activity. However, I’m sure you agree that in order to get a sense of the all-consuming horror of contemporary consumption, we must enter the transportation sepulchre, the car parking tomb, the mausoleum of light rail. Consider it a rite of passenger, the auto-da-fe of the retailing inquisition.
Where to start? Congestion on the motorways? Cursing slow-moving drivers? Cruising in search of a space? Queuing for the multi-storey? Space bandits? Manoeuvring into and out of parking bays?
As I leave Portstewart travelling on the main Portstewart to Coleraine road, I find myself stuck behind a dickhead of a farmer who thinks he owns the road. He must think everybody else wants to live life in the slow lane like himself. Well, after what seems like a lifetime I eventually get past him only to realise I have to stop for the bloody traffic lights (oh, just as well I’m not in a rush). Eventually reaching Coleraine, I look for a space to park my car (damn it if I’m going to pay to park my car). I’ll drive round the block a few times until I find a free car parking space. Eventually I find a space although someone nearly beats me to it.
Parking in Omagh was not to prove such a delight either. I surely question the priority of several trees and a few blades of grass over the development of a multi-storey car park, which Omagh so badly needs. With every space in the vicinity full, I was forced to sit and get ready to pounce. Two OAPs returning to their Metro was my first opportunity, however I was not the only one to spot them. As I pulled up adjacent, waiting for them to reverse out, I noticed my rival had positioned himself exactly opposite me, to the other side of the unsuspecting Metro. His frustration, as obvious as mine, both knowing the game of averages we were playing. As the possibly senile OAPs fought with their car to get it to go in the direction they wanted, my impatience was growing. Why were such people allowed on the roads? Thank God, they reversed towards my opponent, blocking his movement allowing me to shoot into the spot. As I left the car, with my thoughts of shopping, I dared not look at him, his anger no doubt multiplied by my victory.
As we arrive in the centre of Belfast we come across the first obstacle of the day, that of finding a parking space...I turn into the streets, but to my dismay there is not one free space. I then start feeling dizzy as I drive around in circles, losing count of the number of times I have driven past the Ulster Hall. I think to myself that we were crazy coming to Belfast on a Saturday, we should have learnt by now that it is always packed out on a Saturday. Then, as I turn into a street for the umpteenth time, my eyes light up when my mum yells out, ‘There’s one!’ and when I look I see an easy end space and sigh with relief that I don’t need to parallel park. However, when I park the car my heart sinks as a horrible thought comes into my head. Do we have any change to get a ticket from the pay-and-display machine?
Next down the turnpike, the turn-your-head-pike, of terror there’s expired parking meter psychosis, traffic warden psychosis, wheel clamp psychosis and other-driver-waiting-for-the-space psychosis. Nor, for that matter, can we forget – let alone forgive -- psychotic car park attendants.
Shopping in Coleraine is usually limited to two hours for me. Why? Because after two hours the price of the car park space doubles. I feel like Anneka Rice running from one shop to another, trying to be inside the deadline.
I left the trolley back and met up with Patricia and mummy and offered to help with the bags. back at the car I put the bags in the boot. Whilst standing there another car pulled up alongside and indicated into my space. I never like to be rushed anyway and having just survived a few hours with a shopaholic, I was in no mood to take shit from a dickhead I didn’t even know!
To my utter rage I discovered that I had mislaid my car parking ticket and a grunting attendant in the kiosk charged me for the full daily rate, something like three or four pounds. ‘Happy Christmas to you, sir’, I bellowed out the window. I drove out of Belfast, tired and disappointed.
Public transportation, you say? Talk sense! What are you, some kind of eco-friendly do-gooding, tree-hugger? Public transportation is worse, much worse, take it from me, matey. At least motor cars provide a private space where we can curse other road users to our heart’s content, safe in the knowledge that letting off steam is the safest way of venting the innate, bestial aggression of our species. You try swearing at all and sundry on the Saturday-afternoon supermarket special, especially in the week before Christmas, and you won’t live to tell the tale. Beaten to death on a bus by grey-haired grannies wielding bulging shopping bags. What a way to go.
Stood at the bus stop for half-an-hour, as usual. Of course it was raining and of course being a student I was simply wearing a washed-out denim coat, with more holes in it than a packet of Polo Mints. Suitably drenched, the two buses which always come at once, were packed to the hilt with screaming youngsters, housewives by the dozen and of course the old granny at the front with the leopard-skin hat and pink furry coat that could have walked straight out of Oxfam! By the time we reached the town through masses of snail-like traffic, I was wet, sweaty from the combined body heat of fifty others, and smelling of smoke from the sixteen year-old psycho who always flouts the no smoking rule on buses and never gets caught.
The nightmare begins at the bus-stop. There are about twenty-five people waiting and by the time I get on the bus, I think I’ve been transported to the back seats of India or Pakistan, the imagination runs wild, and it seems as if people are hanging from the roof, the back and the sides of the bus.
It has now started to drizzle and there is a large crowd waiting for the bus, most of them school children. The bus arrives and there is a large surge of people heading for the bus. Have the parents of these children taught them nothing?, I thought, they’d walk over you if they got the chance. Although I suppose it wasn’t so long ago that I was in their shoes. I eventually get on the bus and find a seat. What a boring journey, I have to listen to children shouting and screaming until we reach Dromore. Then after that the bus seems to be stopping at every hole in the hedge lifting grannies who can hardly walk or the most annoying people who walk the earth. Am I being cruel or have I got up too early and am therefore not high on these joys of life? It’s now 9.55 a.m. and the bus is going down the Lisburn Road. I feel like shit, the bus is stuffy, the driver hasn’t stopped whistling and the journey has made me feel tired. I just want to sit here and let him take me back home.
Time, I think, for a public information insert. Lest there is any misunderstanding about my position on the public/private transportation issue, let me make it perfectly clear that unrestrained car usage has some unfortunate side effects - congestion, exhaust fumes, depletion of the earth’s natural resources etc. What’s more, there are more than a few traffic cone epicures, slip road sybarites and voluptuaries of the 16-valve who get carried away with the excitement of it all (for some strange reason they call this auto-erotic state ‘road rage’). But global warming, melting ice caps and the greenhouse effect is a small price to pay for the continuance of consumer decorum and maintenance of good-mannered motoring, as I’m sure you agree.
Given, furthermore, a choice between self-preservation and preservation of the planet, I’m for the former, particularly when another driver is waving a large monkey-wrench at me. My .44 Magnum usually shuts them up though. Are you feelin’ lucky, punk? Go ahead, make my early-closing day.
Actually, the real problem with parking and analogous transports of delight is that they always occur at the outset of shopping expeditions and things inevitably go downhill thereafter. They do, you’ll see.
As usual, the queues for these car parks greet us as soon as we turn the corner, as they operate on a one-in-one-out system. However it is not the queues themselves that I find annoying, but more the behaviour of other drivers in the queue. I mean, how much common sense does it take to realise that if you block the entrance/exit cars can’t get out and therefore the whole bloody system is fucked up? I apologise for that outburst but this is one thing that happens constantly and really drives me insane. On numerous occasions my passenger or passengers have had the task of convincing me to stay in the car rather than get out and point out the problem to these people who either lack brains or are just completely ignorant...
Then it begins. Just as I have managed to calm down from the previous events. I can feel my blood beginning to boil again. What now, I hear you cry, is there possibly much more that can happen? The short answer to this is yes. Certain retailers do not go out of their way to make life easy for you...The first problem I encounter is that of clothes which have somehow made their way onto the wrong hangers. Somehow this always seems to be smaller sized clothes on hangers which are marked larger, therefore lulling you into a false sense of security of what you can actually fit into. How much time would it take to rectify this problem? Oh well, you just can’t get the staff these days, particularly it would seem at Christmas...Then you have the problem of clothes and other items which are strategically placed completely out of reach for even the taller than average human being...
At this late stage, she manages to convince me to try something on. However, no sooner had I entered the changing room when I turned swiftly on my heels and walked out handing the item to the assistant with a polite thanks-but-no-thanks look on my face. The reason for this being an open-plan changing room. Sorry, but my cellulite is for my eyes only. I wouldn’t like to subject anyone to the sight of my unclothed body. If I do, in a moment of insanity, brave these changing rooms you can be sure that as I am admiring what I think is my own reflection in that ‘little black number that takes you anywhere’ it will suddenly hit me that it is not actually me, but instead it is that super model-like babe who happens to be trying on the same outfit somewhere behind me, at which point I will try to struggle back into my clothes without revealing any of my body, and run.
Oh yes, I almost forgot. Before we leave the subject of transportation-related trauma and move on to other revolting things -- or, rather, revolting others -- I suppose now’s the right time for my hire-car horror. Hmmmm. Sorry, I just can’t do it. God, the pain, the pain, the pain. Still smarting, I’m afraid. Let me get back to you.
- Preface. On Marketplace Melodies, Consumer Cantatas and Shopping Serenades
- 1. Beyond Goods and Evil: The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Shopping
- 2. Tales From the Crypt of Consumption: Shopping Sturm und Drang
- 3. It’s a Mall World After All
- 5. Here’s Another Fine Dress You’ve got me Into
- 5. Notes From the Underground Car Park
- 6. Men are From Marks, Women are From Versace
- 7. The Love That Dare not Speak its Brand Name
- 8. Will the Real Hyperreal Please Stand Up?
- 9. Beyond the Displeasure Principle: Consumption and its Discontents
- 10. American p: Utah kin to me
- Notes. You Don’t Have to be Mad to Shop Here, but it Helps