6: Men are From Marks, Women are From Versace
Despite the delinquent denials of hopelessly addicted shopaholics, most sensible people agree that shopping is a profoundly hateful activity. According to our happy band of introspectors, it is nothing less than a ‘nightmare’, a ‘recurring nightmare’, a ‘complete nightmare’, a ‘worst nightmare’, a ‘total nightmare’ an ‘absolute nightmare’, an ‘ultimate nightmare’, a veritable ‘nightmare on High Street’. Indeed, for those with more than one word, albeit an evocative word, in their vocabulary of abomination, going shopping stirs up all manner of deeply disagreeable emotions. ‘Angry’, ‘vexed’, ‘frustrated’, ‘irritated’, ‘aggravating’, ‘raging’ ‘seething’, ‘sickened’, ‘anguish’, ‘torture’, ‘gutted’, ‘disgusted’, ‘detested’, ‘disaster’, ‘fed-up’, ‘mad’, ‘frantic’, ‘torment’, ‘torrid’, ‘turmoil’, ‘terrible’, ‘ordeal’, ‘chaos’, ‘flustered’, ‘bothered’, ‘dread’, ‘insane’, ‘hatred’, ‘horror’ and ‘annoyed’ are just some of their more sonorous terms of endearment, as are phrases of the ‘about to explode’, ‘doing my head in’, ‘got to get out’, ‘panic attack’, ‘blind fury’, ‘blood boiling’, ‘severely pissed off’, ‘can’t take any more’, ‘blow a fuse’, ‘approaching meltdown’, ‘life or death situation’, ‘hell on earth’, ‘losing the head’, ‘on the point of screaming’, ‘the final straw’ and ‘never again!’ variety.
Now, I realise that some of you have led fairly sheltered lives. Grim as the groves of academe undoubtedly are in our post-Dearing, pre-RAE, neo-Malthusian, pay and display educational times, the ivory towers of intellectual accomplishment remain somewhat divorced from the degradation of the dole queue, production line, service sector sweat-shop or white-collar slave trade. The unremitting tedium of the mouse potato, house potato, couch potato, spud-u-lookalike lifestyle, is alien to many recumbents on our well-upholstered, if increasingly threadbare, seats of learning. True, our Deans, Rectors, Vice-Chancellors and senior paper-pushers-cum-buck-passers-cum-expense-claim-artists prefer to toil in straightened, self-abnegating, well-nigh impecunious circumstances rather than see their venerable institutions suffer or junior staff go short. It is, nevertheless, fair to say that most scholars are completely ignorant of the dystopian netherworld of high rise flats, public transportation dependency, vandalised telephones, discarded syringes and graffiti-daubed, litter-strewn, vomit-streaked, urine-reeking hallways. Except, of course, when they walk through the student village.
In these circumstances, we shouldn’t be at all surprised that countless academic commentators on consumption are completely out of touch with the sheer awfulness of the shopping experience. The sated, sedated, seduced, occasionally seditious consumers of their imaginations simply do not exist. As the previous chapter clearly indicated, spawn of the devil shopping carts, queues from here to eternity, and the diverse delights of double yellow line dancing loom large in the psyches of our not-so-friendly neighbourhood shopping socio-paths.
Such shopping torments, however, are as balm on a fevered brow, as a hot whiskey on a chill winter’s afternoon, as the patter of raindrops on the roof of a tent, compared to the trials and tribulations I’m about to describe. Susceptible, impressionable or underaged readers are excused the remainder of this chapter, as are hysterics, shopapholics, puritans and, naturally, lovers of elegant writing. Individuals of a non-heterosexual persuasion, not to mention that unspeakable mob of outgoing, party-throwing, peace-loving, kumbya-singing, swearbox-shaking, Rotary-Circling, neighbourhood-watching do-gooders, are also advised to opt for the early bath. Together if you like.
To the aromatics that remain, let me make it absolutely clear than I am not talking about the comparatively trivial matter of special shopping occasions such as Christmas, birthdays, weddings and the like. Don’t get me wrong, amigos, these consuming episodes can be and are truly horrendous. As a rule, they register 9.8 on the Richter Scale of Retailing or, on a really bad day, can make Mount St. Helen’s sound like a mosquito breaking wind (an especially well-mannered mosquito, let it be said.) At Christmastime in particular, the usual stresses, strains and screaming fits associated with parking, purchasing and departing are amplified past the point of distortion, past the point of communication with bats, dogs and dolphins to the profound, everlasting silence of synaptic overload and hippocampal implosion.
Why do so many people try to kill themselves in Winter, more than at any other time of the year? Is it because of the lack of daylight? Or the cold? No, it goes deeper than that. It is, in my opinion, due to the nightmare purchasing trip of the year: Christmas shopping (although the pressure gets unbearably tense when it comes ‘last minute’ Christmas shopping).
Nor, for that matter, am I referring to straightened financial, physical, emotional or temporal circumstances, though Lord knows these are bad enough. Not having enough money puts a bit of a dampener on things, as you can well imagine. Having too much money can also prove problematic, since that is when potentially purchasable products decide to make themselves scarce.
Sometimes if finances are poor I will curtail my shopping activities, though in other instances I take the attitude, I am broke anyway so it won’t make much difference. A ready-cash deficit will mean that I am more likely to look for bargains and special offers. It has happened in the past that I have been quite flush but there has been nothing to buy...Now I don’t know, but every time I am in the mood for shopping, I dash off to the nearest shop, cash in hand, only to find that there is nothing to buy. Maybe the shops don’t want to sell to me.
Similarly, going shopping in a ‘delicate’ physical state can deflate the consuming ardour of even the most impassioned shopper, as can the not inconsiderable physical demands of shopping itself, which involves long hours, heavy bags, running for buses, getting soaked to the skin and countless other fun-filled exertions.
The idea of hitting Cookstown’s high street with Sharon, her mother and her brother’s two year old son, does not appeal to me at the best of times, but with only seven shopping days left to Christmas and a hangover than felt like I had fallen off the top deck of a speeding bus and into the path of a freight train, the prospect was terrifying.
Then Donna reappeared from the shop with yet more shopping bags, handed me a stack of them and informed me that if we hurried we could catch the train that was leaving in five minutes. So there I was hurrying along through Coleraine streets, trying to carry all the shopping bags in one hand, due to my heavily bandaged wrist, and trying to smoke my cigarette whilst sheltering it from the rain. But to no avail, it got wet and broke. We made the train and on the way home I informed Donna I was going to the pub with the boys to watch a boxing match that night. All she would talk about was what she had bought, what she should have bought and about trying everything on again. Why can’t women shop the way I do? I leave the house. I know exactly what I want and where to get it. I might see something else and buy it or just leave and go home. I have discussed this with my friends and they all feel the same. I guess I will never understand why women shop the way they do.
Moods are equally mercurial.1 After all, there are few things more trying on heaven and earth than shopping in a foul mood, except of course shopping in a shopping-induced foul mood. The two, in fact, are inextricably interconnected. They are the emotional equivalent of belligerent Siamese twins, the yinless yang or yangfree yin of contemporary consumer culture.
On entering the store I was surprised by the cluttered layout and seeming lack of organisation in the store…My growing feeling of disappointment was compounded when I discovered that the limited number of suits available were quite light for winter and also would not be appropriate for my interviews, as they were too casual...With my mood slowly changing from excitement and delight to one of annoyance and dread, I decided to venture into Marks and Spencer…I have never considered an overly lucky person but I never considered myself unlucky, strolling through the ladies department it soon became apparent that there were no suits at all in M&S. At this stage of my shopping trip I was not only becoming quite aggravated, as two of the major ladies stores in Foyleside did not seem to stock suits at this particular time of year, but the complex seemed to be becoming very crowded.
Indeed, if you add a touch of time pressure to this volatile mix - hurry, hurry, hurry, rush, rush, rush, hassle, hassle, hassle - the sweating, unstable stick of shopping Semtex is certain to detonate at some stage, unless it is defused by a timely infusion of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol or the anti-shopping antidote available from McDonalds.2
When I go shopping I like to start off early in the morning around 10 o’clock which gives me plenty of time to look at the shops, to view the clothes and to pick out items which I would be interested in. This would need to be done by around lunchtime to give myself plenty of time to make my final decision. One thing I do detest is ‘rushing’, especially when you are trying to make a decision and then all of a sudden, some of the shop’s main lights go off, the door is locked with a member of staff standing at the door and the last straw is when the music system is switched off. At this stage I put everything down and walk out, not having purchased anything.
Time, as all shoppers know, speeds up around Christmas, the velocity at which it accelerates being directly proportional to the amount of presents still needed. The same phenomenon also applies to exams.
Christmas (p)resentment, cashless catalepsy, consumer cephalalgia, marketing moodswings and the drip, drip, drip of shopping dropsy, are unimaginably vile experiences. They make shooting Niagara Falls in a plastic bucket, high wire walking between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre (on a windy day) or agreeing to co-pilot Richard Branson on one of his what-goes-up-must-come-plummeting-down balloonathons, seem fairly straightforward by comparison. Truth to tell, however, they are as the rumble of distant thunder, the lapping of waves on a beach, the sinuous breeze sliding across a torpid summer’s meadow alongside the tornado, the tsunami, the lightning strike that is other people.3
Words, as you can well imagine, completely fail me at this point. Amiable, entertaining and eminently clubable though they often are (some of my best friends can be found in the Bloomsbury Good Word Guide) and considerate as they have been to me in the past (many a rip-roaring night I’ve spent in the OED orgasmatron), there comes a time when you have to wave mere words goodbye. The creative writer’s task may be to present the unpresentable, articulate the inarticulate, to pull the future into the present, but only inchoate expletives, para-linguistic utterances or the haphazard typographical symbols that signify unsignifiability for the keyboard surfers of today -- &%#2!//$#@\\&! etc. -- can adequately express the inexpressible awfulness of other shoppers.
Accepting, however, that it is impossible to escape the manacles of language; cognisant, moreover, that bestial ululations look kinda awkward on the page, albeit no more so than most of my prose; and notwithstanding the comparatively limited market for books of nonsense syllables, incomprehensible syntax and elongated sentences of agonising death, though Lacan managed an edition or two in his time (indeed, if I keep stringing this one out, I’ll soon be able to claim my rightful place in the pantheon of postmodern protraction – whaddya mean I’ve been there for years?!), it is incumbent upon us to at least try to capture this mephitic maelstrom of marketing malevolence, mouldy though our metaphors of immiseration and inter-personal malice undoubtedly are. Phew! True, a congeries of cliched clauses, subclauses, subsubclauses and whatever lurks beneath subsubclauses --the Nautilus clause, perhaps? -- can help capture the incandescent tedium, the hyperactive ennui, the amiable abomination, the combination of hatred and helpfulness, cursing and courtesy, caring and carelessness that permeate consumer interactions, but it’s always a poor substitute for the incomparable eloquence of silence.
Make no mistake, other people are the ogres, the orcs, the epsilons, the hobgoblins, the sorns, the revenants, the replicants, the klingons of consumer culture. Like demons, angels and celestial shopping trolleys, however, they come in many shapes, forms and ranks of iniquity. Perhaps the best way of comprehending this hydra-headed horror is in terms of perceived social distance from the introspectionist; that is, the extent of its ‘Otherness’. The furthest and least differentiated is shoppers in the mass - milling, swilling, swirling, churning crowds of unimaginably vile people, who push, shove, shout, swear, stink, stop suddenly and seem steadfast in their desire to make life difficult for everybody else by being indefatigably rude, ostentatiously obstructive and downright incorrigible.4
On our way there I notice yet again that everyone who goes shopping in the centre of town must be blind, except me. This is the only explanation I can fathom for people walking straight toward me, with myself always being the one to take evasive action in order that I’m not trampled to death. This phenomenon is something which I have observed over many years and something that really pisses me off.
The big problem with shopping malls...is that they are crammed full of bloody people! Idiots walking straight into me with the obligatory, ‘sorry mate’, along with other dreamers and professional thinkers in a total daze, just going with the flow of people not knowing where they are going or indeed what they are doing here and where they will end up. Who cares anyway?, as a punter in front of me suddenly stops without any hand signals and I walk straight into him, and oh yes there it is, the universal apology, ‘sorry’.
Coping with this appalling state of al fresco affairs is undeniably difficult, not least because the odds are next to impossible. So stacked are they in favour of one’s protagonists that going shopping makes the Spartans at Thermopylae look like an evenly matched contest, Roland at Avignon akin to a bit of argy-bargy and the Charge of the Light Brigade little more than a mock pillow fight (cushions to the left or them/cushions to the right of them/into the pouffe of death, and what have you).
After that, we went to Index near Cornmarket, which was packed full of people of all sorts, in what was a cramped and very hot atmosphere, in what could only resemble a cattle market which was doing my head in. So, after choosing a suitable razor for her brother, we proceeded to the front desk which was crammed full of people grabbing their goods and then pissing off as soon as they could, to get out of the bollocks of a mess they were standing in. It was a mad scramble, with people from all backgrounds going absolutely mad.
Arriving in the city centre is as if a nuclear holocaust has been predicted or else rationing has been introduced overnight. Where have all these people come from? Eye contact with anyone suggests panic, fear and a total disregard for others, leaving me to come to the conclusion ‘oh no, another bloody Christmas Eve shopping spree’…Boots at Christmas is full of idiots ho seem to spend their time walking, suddenly stopping and walking again. I detest this!
Despite the difficulties, two contrasting strategies – fight and flight – seem to be the most common reactions to crowds of offensive others. The fighters punch, kick, claw and bite with the best of them, whereas the flighters flee from the fray, choose to sit things out and tend to their retailing wounds with caffeine poultices, carbohydrate sutures or nicotine plasters.
They say good things come in small packages, but when you find yourself in what feels like a herd of cattle and behaves in a similar fashion, somehow those words of wisdom lose their value and provide no consolation whatsoever. However, I’ve discovered a wonderful defence mechanism when I find myself in a situation where crowds are inevitable. I define it as the art of shoving, and find it very effective indeed!
While we stood dripping onto the floor, we watched what seemed to be the whole of Northern Ireland pushing and shoving their way through the shopping centre. Index, which was to be our first stop, had queues twenty people deep outside the shop. We decided that we would wait a while before we did what little shopping we needed, so we went to get a coffee and a doughnut.
Alongside this seething mass of ill-mannered, probably in-bred, procurers, all of whom are bearing down upon our ever-amiable essayists, another group of ghastly others is discernible. Not only are these less undifferentiated on the whole (if you’ll pardon the sweeping generalisation) but they belong to a small number of particularly odious categories. Naturally, one hesitates to call a spade a spade in our united-colours-of-Benetton, it’s-a-small-world-after-all, care-in-the-community times, but by far the worst of these is old people. That’s right, doddery OAPs who impede everyone else, who think they own the place, who take ages to complete sales transactions, who insist on engaging all and sundry in inane conversation, who dress in the most frightful, often unlaundered outfits, who tootle around in their little cars at 15 miles per hour or less, who openly discuss the most intimate details of their disintegrating bodies and, frankly, who shouldn’t be allowed out unaccompanied. In fact, who shouldn’t be allowed out at all.
While making my way up the street, I suddenly find myself nearly tripping over some old lady who unexpectedly stops in her stride to have a gossip with someone I presume she knows. This really annoys me, I would really love to give her a shove out of my way and walk on. However, I politely excused myself and walked out past her and at the same time muttering under my breath (old granny gross).
Looking around, the sight of Terry’s Fast Food bar catches my eye and I pop in to order a cup of coffee. Unfortunately…I have difficulty getting a free seat, never mind a free table. I end up having to sit down between a pair of pensioners who appear to have no regard for anyone around them and I have to listen to a whole host of problems, including stiffness, sore joints, bed sores, no more Dad’s Army and the latest tragedies that have entered their life. These pill popping grannies were beginning to ‘do my head in’ and I quickly finished off my coffee to free my seat for yet another customer and headed back into the flood of customer traffic coming up and down the mall.
No less abominable are those appended to the opposite end of life’s mortal coil. Young children are, in many ways, analogous to their chronologically challenged co-conspirators in the anti-consumer league. They hog the pavement, hold everyone up, come equipped with manifold instruments of torture – buggies, sticky fingers, noxious odours, projectile vomit – and are always ready, willing and able to make the most God-forsaken racket.
Top of my [hate] list is parents, especially mothers, with prams. They think they have the right to walk straight ahead and that myself, and every other shopper, has to move and twist their way around them. If I don’t move for them and accidentally collide with them, I can be 100% sure I will get tutted at and told to ‘watch where I am fucking going’. They think they own the footpaths.
Where do all these people come from? The most obvious and irritating factor among this mass is what can only be described as terror on four wheels. The pram contingency. These are the most space consuming, ankle hurting contraptions ever invented. In these four wheeled vehicles sit another annoyance – the crying child. Why, oh why, do parents of young children insist on bringing them on a day’s shopping, when they will only end up getting tired and irritated. Ending with the children screaming their usual chant of ‘I want this, I want that’ or just a rather loud howl which they have the knack of being able to make last for what seems like hours.
Luckily, these repulsive creatures are so impolitic that they unfailingly push their over-protective parents to the point of rebellion, remonstration and, ideally, physical retaliation. When the brutes are struck on our behalf, admittedly, the decibel count is cranked up considerably, but the satisfaction derived from surrogate smacking more than adequately compensates for a perforated eardrum or two.
Standing in the queue waiting to pay, a middle-aged woman with a young child are in front of me. The boy, about four years old, is screaming his little head off because he is not allowed chewing gum. The woman, becoming somewhat impatient at this stage, smacks the child on the bottom. This of course causes the little boy to ‘turn up the volume’ and hence scream louder. I felt the necessity to actually buy the gum for the child but my friend did not agree. We both walked out of the store with headaches coming on and decide to go for something to eat.
Waiting for my size, I noticed an angry mother, gritted teeth, with her four-year old, trying to get him to settle down, for the ‘nice lady to get you some new shoes’. Brat face was having none of it, and the piercing screams went through me when mother planted a firm hand on the back of his bum. Hurry up, bimbo. I was quickly losing patience.
In truth, the introspective essayists do exhibit an element of sympathy for tormented parents. Several of our bete-letrists were forced to go shopping with kids in tow and got a taste of what real retailing horror comprises.
Feeling all pleased with myself, I proceed to the cash point, only to find a queue of irate customers, while a trainee cashier tries single-handedly to deal with customers, who are none too amused by the delay. After a lot of pushing and shoving, I finally reach the till, only to find [baby sister] Melissa has managed to open my purse and spill its contents on to the floor. Amidst her screeching, I manage to pick everything up, to angry glares from other customers, and then only to find an ignorant lady has taken my place. I bite my tongue and wait patiently for my turn. I then discover Melissa has fallen in love with a big, white, woollen doggy slipper. I must admit it had the cutest pair of brown eyes. Melissa refused to believe it wasn’t her teddy bear. I tried to bribe her to put it back but she was having none of it. She considered me attentively for a moment, only to resort to screaming. I could feel my face get redder and redder. Trying not to attract any further attention, I quickly pulled it off her. In her frustration she tumbled out of the push chair, pulling several skirts down with her. Quickly lifting her up and replacing the garments, I turned to go. In the background, I could hear voices speaking with a hollow sound and bemused tone, ‘That’s not a very tolerant mother, is it? I don’t know why people have children nowadays, when they can’t look after them.’
However, there is little or no compassion for two other groups of clearly identifiable others: street people and courting couples. The former, which range from buskers and charity workers to stallholders and newspaper vendors, are parasites pure and simple. The latter openly parade their priapism, appear to have no shame and really ought to have their ardour suitably quashed with a bucket of ice-cold water or high voltage cattle prod. Or both.
Save the whales? Not today, thank you. Save me please from the vultures trying to claw every last penny out of me. Today, there is no chance. I shall not be pressurised. I am on a mission and am on my way.
I do not know how anybody else feels but one of my biggest dislikes is courting couples when I go shopping. They are everywhere - holding hands, smiling, batting their eyes at one another, licking one another’s tonsils, as if there is no tomorrow. Boys kissing girls, girls kissing boys, boys kissing boys and girls kissing girls - it is enough to make you throw up. There is a time and a place for everything. High streets and shopping centres should ban these individuals, or throw a sack over them.
Few would deny that the billing and cooing of city centre lovebirds is a capital offence and fewer still would seek to prevent the periodic culling of collectors, especially anti-seal pup culling collectors. However, if it came to a choice between amatory extermination, mendicant maltreatment or eliminating certain specific individuals, then it’s no contest. The last of these are simply beyond redemption, since they are the unspeakable people who go out of their way to antagonise the rest of us. They steal our car parking spaces, they block our path, they bunk the queue, they beat us to the best bargains, they ask the most idiotic questions or make the most mortifying remarks, they expect to get served before everyone else (as if being first in line gives them the right so to do), they have every available shop assistant at their beck and call, they pay by personal cheque or some prehistoric means of exchange when we’re in a terrible hurry and, worst of all, they unfailingly turn out to be the people we least want to meet – ex-girlfriend, estranged relative, old schoolteacher, rugby club coach, plaintive parish priest and the like.
Approximately forty-five minutes later, we arrive at the shopping complex and start the tiresome task of trying to find a parking space on a Saturday morning, not easy may I add. Our luck seems to be in as we spot a space on the horizon, calling for us to park in it. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a burgundy Mercedes with a fat, balding owner appears and steals our prime spot. He reverses in and with a smug grin on his fat face gives us the ‘birdie’, which I return with great affection. NOT! The air within the car turns blue with verbal delicacies as we try to find an alternative parking space.
So I joined yet another queue at the sales desk in order to ask someone. The guy in front of me was a real pain, as he handed over his purchase he asked about something that seemed to cause some confusion with the sales team. This held things up nicely as they all conferred amongst each other, then the git pulled the ace from his sleeve - A CHEQUE BOOK. Normally in these days of sign and we’ll print, this form of carry-on is fairly acceptable, but not for this individual. He duly insisted on writing the whole thing himself, inquiring who it was payable to, the date and the old favourite, ‘How much was that again?’ Imbecile. So I got served three days later, with the reply to my question being answered as ‘Oh no, we sold out of those half-an-hour ago.’ Just bloody typical really.
So far my shopping is going quite successfully. Of course, there is always the dreaded disturbance of familiar faces stopping for a chat. Glancing quickly from the corner of my eye, I spot some and, pondering over whether they have seen me or not, without further hesitation I briskly walk on, thanking God for allowing me to avoid those people I consider mere acquaintances.
Running into alienated acquaintances, or any of the above-mentioned consuming others, can be a pretty traumatic experience, but the encounter only lasts for a couple of minutes at most, nightmarish minutes I grant you. Much, much worse, if rather less melodramatic, is the Chinese water torture, the death by one thousand cuts, the three stir-crazy weeks in solitary confinement that is going shopping with someone else. To be fair, shopping companions have their uses. Second opinions can help prevent all sorts of crimes of consuming passion, sartorial crimes especially. In fact, the streets would be full of badly dressed, uncoordinated, chic-less people if it weren’t for the ever-watchful presence of our personal style patrols. Come to think of it, the streets are full of demode, taste-free, profoundly untrendy others. Where are the fashion police, the long Armani of the law, the Old Bill Blass when you need them?
The best place to shop is a fairly large city, where we can find a lot of shops or shopping centres. I usually go with one or two friends. It is indeed much more enjoyable to spend an afternoon with someone, walking around and giving advice to each other.
At the end of my class I strayed away from my group of friends, not telling anyone where I was going. The reason primarily being I dislike having people with me when I go shopping. I prefer to be by myself, to go into shops I want to go into and not have to wait around on anyone. I walked briskly to the bus stop and waited on the Coleraine bus…About ten minutes later I felt someone thump me hard on the back. I turned to discover it was one of the girls I live with in Portstewart. Feeling so fed up and angry, I wanted to slap her face but after contemplating this idea felt it would not be wise as she attends karate classes. She asked if I was going home and I tell her where I am going, praying to God and all his angels that she doesn’t decide to come along. ‘Oh, I wouldn’t mind joining you,’ she exclaims. Shit, I thought, bang goes my idea of being by myself. So I ground my teeth and told her to come along.
Be that as it may, shopping with someone else also has its down side, its deeper than down side, its full fathom five side, its Mindanao Trench of marketing side, its where angel fish fear to tread side, its Jacques Cousteau ate my guppy side. I’m referring, of course, to its shopping with mother side. Take it from me, swimming with sharks, swimming with rabid sharks, swimming with rabid sharks that haven’t had a square meal in a fortnight, is a proverbial picnic – albeit a picnic where you’re for starters – compared to shopping with mother. Apart from the standard infantile regression trauma and false retailing memory syndrome, there is the sheer toe-curling, stomach-churning, magenta-faced mortification that such shopping expeditions induce and entail.
I stood at the door of the changing room and put on the hat while my mother gave me the once-over. Just then, friends of hers from work went past and of course she had to have a full-scale conversation with them and I had to be brought into it. ‘This is my girl’, she proudly announced. Then I had to endure humiliating comments such as ‘isn’t she lovely’, ‘she’s so tall’ and ‘that hat really suits her’. EXCUSE ME, people, I am here you know. I feel like a sheep that is on show at the market and looking like a prize prat with white legs and the track of my socks showing around the bottom of my legs (I make another mental note to myself, never to wear socks again when going shopping for a skirt).
I don’t know if this is a habit my mother alone has developed over the years or whether the problem is more widespread, but no matter which shop we went into and no matter what I was intending to look for you can be sure that mother will wander off and begin to look at things for herself. In doing so she usually leaves me talking to myself or else a complete stranger who has moved into the space where I could have sworn she was standing. This is something that I find has increased over the years and the worst part of it is trying to politely break to her that a certain item, which she may have wandered over to look at, is not exactly her. Linked closely with this problem is that of luring me into shops under false pretences. I think what really annoys me most about this is that she always manages to succeed, it does not matter how astute I think I’m being she always convinces me that she does have a valid reason for going in. When I try to point out to her that she is really beginning to lose the plot of the mission she will begin on her new tack. This will involve picking up everything in sight and asking if this is what I’m looking for. It wouldn’t matter how many times I’ve told her what I am looking for she will still insist in trying to talk me into something else, usually not even remotely related.
All women, as Oscar Wilde might have said, shop like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No men do. That is theirs.
To cut a long story short...I had to go ahead with the unthinkable, shopping with my mother. After finding a suitable place to park the car, we headed for the Richmond Centre. I just hoped no-one would see me. I would get some stick from the boys. These were but a few thoughts going through my head, as I proceeded through the main entrance, keeping my head down in an effort to avoid eye contact with anyone. I was on the look-out for a pair of jeans and a shirt that will help me attract my ‘dream woman’ tonight at the local disco. If anything was to work in my favour, it was the fact that, if I had gone alone, I would not have got a lot of money to spend. I had a strategic plan formulated. It was to trail my mother around the most expensive shops, in order to make her realise that the days of buying a shirt and jeans for fifteen pounds were well and truly over...On to Next. It was here that I fell in love with a beige sweater. I asked the shop assistant was there any XLs left, from whom I got a swift reply, ‘No, sorry, it’s just what we have on the shop floor.’ This was just my luck, the first thing I saw and actually liked, there was none left. Leaving the store, my mother noticed that there was the same jumper in the shop window display (you know how it is, they miss nothing). So, in she walks, bold as brass, and requests if someone could check what size the garment was on display. Reluctantly, one of the sales staff followed the command. After knocking a few things down, and stumbling back on to the shop floor, the sweater was indeed an extra large. Apologising for the trouble she had gone to, I gladly accepted the sweater and proceeded to the cash desk, with the intention of buying it after all the commotion. Lying it on the counter, mum inspected the item for any flaws. At this stage, I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. The inevitable happened, there was a stitch, or something, out of place. I ground my teeth and said, in an oh-so-softly voice, ‘Mum, it doesn’t matter, I want the top. Come on.’ Her next sentence was the final straw, ‘Is there any chance of getting a couple of pounds off?’ Once I heard those words, I walked out of the shop and sat on a bench opposite the store. I just didn’t need this, as my head was bouncin’ from the night before. A few minutes later, I saw a beaming face through the congested flow of shoppers. ‘Gerard, I got 10% off. You see, you would just have taken it.’ That made her day. That £3.50 seemed a lot more to a woman, who goes out of her way to unintentionally embarrass you, but you have to love them.
Actually, shopping with dad is nearly as bad, though such events are fairly rare. Family men, as a rule, prefer to avoid the consuming imbroglio once the kids can cope for themselves. Their participation is usually confined to ferrying the spendthrifts to their date with retailing destiny, complaining about the likely cost and querying the need to go shopping in the first place. However, this comparatively minor role provides plenty of scope for intra-family discord.5
After a few weeks of torment my father finally gave in and agreed to take me shopping. Every time I want to go shopping we have to go through the same old ritual. He spouts out, ‘why do you have to go shopping anyway, sure that wardrobe of your is packed with clothes, you must have something that would do you.’ Honestly, men, they really don’t have a clue…An hour and a half after we set off, we finally arrive in Derry but no matter how many times we drive through the city dad always manages to do something wrong. This time proved to be no exception, as he entered the roundabout forgetting to look for on-coming cars. The sounds of horns blazed in my ears. I’m too far away to read their lips but I can imagine what they are saying – ‘fucking Donegal drivers, they think they own the roads’.
Similarly, sibling rivalry is certain to send the shopping sparks flying, especially when one has more money to spend than the other or is the recipient of inequitable parental bounty. Childhood grudges, grievances, animosity and all-round rancour are replayed, rewound and replayed again, in the retailing VCR and the manifold scores that have built up in the interim are settled in the crucible of consumption.
As usual she’s late, but I wait patiently, not saying a word, though contemplating what feeble excuse she will give this time. Eventually she arrives and I restrain myself from asking, ‘What kept you?’, anything to prevent an argument because I want this to be a worthwhile shopping trip and therefore wish to start it as I mean to go on…As far as I am concerned, on a shopping trip the main highlight is when and where we shall eat. Considerable thought was given when deciding which food outlet could be satisfactory. I suggest Café Poirot on Fountain Street and receive full approval from Roisin, only to discover when we’re half-way up the queue that nothing on the menu appeals to her. Abruptly she turns around and heads for the door, while I hesitantly follow in her footsteps, paranoid that staff and customers are glaring at us. Subsequently Roisin decides on the most suitable restaurant for her, and I do not dare to make any further suggestions.
Now everyone knows that a friend in need of shopping is a friend to be avoided, but not as much as a friend who wants to come shopping with you. They soon get bored, or jealous, or irritated, or incorrigible, or simply unbearable. Their opinions are worth diddly squat. You end up spending much more in their company than you otherwise would or, thanks to their unwelcome interference, fail to spend anything, even though the money’s burning a ozone-layerish hole in your pocketbook. Yet, as incurable shopping optimists, as inveterate marketing masochists, as steamed puddings in the pressure cooker of procurement, we continue to inflate the hot water bottle of friendship to bursting point and beyond.
I have been known to buy and wear clothes if my friends thought they were horrible, because I would take the opposite opinion as of course I knew more than they did. Boy, was I wrong more than once. A pair of near-carnivorous lime-green jeans, a tropical Hawaiian shirt and a pair of red Levi’s are a few of the great raspberries in my bag to Oxfam.
Where shall we go? Oh no, another decision. Okay, Next café it is. Well, this is a great seat to relax for ten minutes. My friends are whinging already. I want to go here, I want to go there, I want to get this, I need a smoke and this is the start of our shopping trip. I wouldn’t like to hear them by the time 6 o’clock comes. What do I mean 6 o’clock? It’ll be 9 o’clock more than likely before we leave and I’ll still not have got all my presents…One of my friends wants new boots and she keeps asking ‘where’s Schuz?’ If I had a penny for every time she said that I would be worth a fortune today. Nothing in Topshop worth talking about except one of the sales assistants looked quite dishy. Next minute, ‘there’s Schuz’ cries this voice behind me, as my friend points across the road. Thank fuck for that, I said to myself.
In the apple barrel of life, friends are the rotten ones we refuse to throw out, though you may well wonder what the hell they’re doing in a barrel these days. Shrink wrapped, pre-priced, quality controlled multi-packs not good enough for them, eh? Nevertheless, just as there are many varieties of apple, bruised or otherwise, so too friends come in many shapes and forms. Doubtless we can all think of Macintosh Reds, Granny Smiths, Cox’s Pippins, toffee apples, cider apples and rotten-to-the-core apples of our acquaintance. For the purposes of the present discussion, however, I’d like to concentrate on those varieties that look like Golden Delicious but turn out to be crab apples, cookers or, as often as not, windfalls. That’s right, boyfriends, girlfriends, partners and co-habitees of diverse stripe, the apples of our astigmatic eye.
When I go shopping I usually take my girlfriend Aideen. This is because she enjoys shopping and could spend hours walking between different stores, just window shopping. Personally I would not go near the shops unless I had money to spend. Aideen is at college in Belfast at the moment, so I went down there a few weeks back to do my Christmas shopping. I would be the type to leave it all to the last minute and then go into a mad rush for a few days, but she is highly organised. So she decided both of us should get it over and done with ‘before there is nothing left’, as she put it.
Frankly, lovebirds, it’s a miracle that any modern relationship manages to survive shopping trips at all – relationship marketing is oxymoronic in more ways that one – and personally I blame the rising divorce rate on the recent rapid growth of ‘recreational’ shopping; that is, where the better half drags the better-not half to the mall and concludes that it’s better to call the whole thing off.6
I can identify myself as an apathetic shopper, the type that likes to dash in and out, neither eating, browsing nor socialising in the effort to get the whole business over as quickly and as inexpensively as possible…Unfortunately my girlfriend’s Number One leisure activity is shopping, so it follows that we shop ’til we (almost literally) drop in every fashion boutique, leather boutique, gift shop and jewellery store that the resort has to offer.
On the way out of the automatic doors at the Tower Centre, Graham spies a sportswear store and decides he wants to have a look. ‘Awe, come on in here a minute.’ ‘No, Graham, listen we’re running out of time as it is without stopping to look at stupid stuff.’ ‘You never go anywhere I want to go, it’s the same old story, we always have to go where you fucking want to go!’ But as always he relents and we go straight out and down the street to Benetton.
The cause of this problem, I submit, lies in the fundamental difference between male and female shopping behaviours. In these PC times, admittedly, one daren’t get too essentialist about such things.7 Nevertheless, as the Human Genome Project will soon discover, there is unquestionably a shopping gene lurking in the depths of our DNA. In women, it’s the colour co-ordinated one that can’t quite make up its mind what molecule string it belongs to, whereas among men it clashes with the genes on either side and is clearly recognisable by the red tab on its back pocket.
To begin with it wasn’t too bad, we were going in and out of a few shops and I just followed behind her looking at the sales assistants who were quite nice, as she browsed among the displays, but the novelty began to wear off and I began to get fed-up. After a while...I noticed she had not many bags and I commented on this...to which she replied, saying that she liked such and such a skirt etc, so let’s go back to that shop again. I asked her why she didn’t buy it in the first place and she answered, ‘What if I had bought it and found something nicer later?’ But she hadn’t and everything she did like she didn’t find anything nicer, so it all began again. ‘Let’s go back to this shop.’ So once again I was getting trailed round women’s shops…Why can’t women shop as I do? I leave the house. I know exactly what I want and where to get it. I might see something else and buy it and then leave and go home. I’ve discussed this with my friends and they all feel the same. I guess I will never understand why women shop the way they do.
The intention of Graham and me going in here was to by two scarves, one for me and one for his niece as a present. It ended up in a row. I believe that if you have to pay dear for a thing, you’re entitled to take as like as long as you like in choosing it. Graham obviously has a different outlook on this We’d picked up a scarf for the niece and I was still trying to decide what colour I wanted when the sales assistant came back to us for a second time to enquire if we needed any help, so Graham pointed out the blue scarf and she entered the amount in the till and held out a perfectly manicured hand for payment. He wasn’t ready for this so quickly and after struggling to get his hands into the pockets of his jeans he gave her a crumpled and screwed up £20 note, which she took great precision in unfolding. I was raging, bloody seething. I wasn’t ready and he just went on ahead and got served. So we walked out (well, I actually stumped on ahead) and along the street to the Fairhill Centre. He started to complain about the girl in Benetton, that she should have put the scarf in the bag first and then asked him for the money. I just thought it’ll harden you, won’t it?
More to the point, these gendered shopping molecules are the corpuscular equivalent of matter and anti-matter, day and night, virus and retro-virus. They are fundamentally, constitutionally, congenitally, physiologically incompatible. Men, in the main, know what they want, set out to find it and the moment it materialises they blag it, buy it, bag it and brag about it. No nonsense, no procrastination, no problem. Or so they like to think. Women, by contrast, take consumption much more seriously and purport to shop in a systematic manner. Potentially purchasable items are examined and, if deemed acceptable, are placed on a mental shortlist. The alternatives are then considered; these are compared with the imagined original; and a decision is finally made.
It was then that I was marched down to Dolcis to look at shoes – for myself. I was told to pick a pair because that was what I was getting for Christmas. In two minutes I had fitted them on, asked for the match of it and Sarah had paid for them. Why can’t women be the same? Why can’t they walk into a shop and in 30 seconds make up their mind whether there is something they like or not? I suppose I’m not the only man to ever ask this.
I found a shiny silver dress. I went into the changing room and tried it on. he said it looked great and I agreed with him that I really liked it as well. Just as he was beginning to look relieved and surprised that it had only taken me one hour to find a dress that suited me, I realised that it creased very easily and told him that I wanted to look around some other shops in case ‘there was anything nicer somewhere else.’ ‘How many times have I heard that before?’, moaned my boyfriend. He knew he was in for a day of torture.
It is not for me to try and explain these deep-seated sexual differences in shopping behaviour. Doubtless the division of consumer labour goes back to some sylvan scene in the upper-Cretaceous, where men hunted (any woolly mammoth/sabre-tooth will do, boys) and women gathered (only the longest roots and biggest tubers for us, ladies). Perhaps the age-old nursery rhyme – sugar and spice and all things nice versus frogs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails -- is as good an explanation as we’re going to get in our postmodern, post-psychoanalytic, post-Spice Girls times.
Yet, bad as consumers in the mass undoubtedly are; dire though dolally grannies or obnoxious children can prove to be; and heavy as the collateral damage is in the gender wars of attrition, there is another Other that is much, much worse. And that other is ourselves. Yeah okay, perhaps that’s putting it a bit pretentiously – not like me, I’m sure you agree – but it is clear that the essayists’ greatest disquiet, the thing that disturbs, puzzles, disappoints and antagonises them most about shopping, is themselves. Much as we detest other shoppers, we seem to hate ourselves even more. Of course, this is not to say that we are a nation of self-loathing melancholics, though undergraduate students, Christ alone knows, are a pretty loathsome bunch at the best of times. However, it appears that, for all our otherwise admirable qualities, everyday encounters with the marketing system not only bring out the worst in us – pushing, shoving, cursing etc – but they also make us feel bad about our own shopping activities, proclivities and idiosyncrasies.
Thus we are beset by all manner of shopping quirks, foibles, behaviours and beliefs which we know we suffer from, which make our lives a misery and which - try as we might - we can do absolutely nothing about. Some people, for example, are prone to procrastination. They can’t make up their minds what they want or, more often than not, can’t make up their minds what they want to buy for other people, especially other people who can’t make up their minds what they want.
Have you ever seen a child in a sweet shop? Well, that’s me. Let me explain, like a child I want everything, but I know that I can’t have everything. So what am I to do? I always had a problem since I was a child myself deciding what to buy, whether it be sweets, clothes, shoes or even what to watch on video. I can’t just go in and buy and leave, no not me. Every factor has to be weighed up before the final decision can be made. Even the most simple things like what shampoo to use. Like the ad says, just wash and go, but me I have to read every label and smell every scent, consider all cost. Why is shopping so hard or is it just me that makes it hard? Because there are people out there who seems to make it look easy. I mean those so-called shopaholics, who do not seem to be able to get enough of shopping. Once they see one item for sale it’s theirs. Oh to be like that for just one day, even one hour.
Others are smitten by the opposite affliction, in so far as they splash out without giving the acquisition sufficient thought and pay the price for precipitous purchases, both literally and metaphorically. Yet others fail to stick to their carefully laid plans and, consequently, suffer from agonised bouts of guilt-ridden self-detestation on account of their fecklessness, extravagance and overall lack of shopping willpower. Tell me about it.
I had been reasonably contented with my purchase of a Sony Personal Stereo at Currys, Sprucefield, at the grand price of £80, until I walked into that particular electrical store in Tenerife and discovered that precisely the same Walkman was displayed at half the price, not to mention a potential further price reduction if I had decided to barter with the persuasive shop owner.
Although I usually have a clear plan in my head of what I am going to buy each person, there is always something that catches my eye and I usually end up changing all the plans that I had made, and more often than not regretting what I buy after the deed is done.
On passing some rather shabbily attired Santas selling six sheets of wrapping paper for £1, I suddenly felt the guilty shopper syndrome, where I was angry with myself for not being able to keep to my plan of trying to buy a red dress instead of chords and a sweater. Ah well, too late now…
Set against those who fail to get what they want, while getting what they never knew they wanted, there are those with nothing in mind, who drift around the shops in a world of their own, who eventually buy something just to have something to show for the day’s shopping and, when it’s all over, who wonder where their money’s gone. What’s more, they wonder about their wanderings.
I have been told frequently that I am a very irritating person to shop with simply because I go off into a world of my own. Nobody can give me advice because I have my own ‘wee’ ideas in my head. My girlfriend can back me up on this one, rather unwillingly I’m sure, because all the time she is constantly screeching into my ear, ‘Wait for me!’
The journey home was spent trying to calculate just what we spent our money on. It was one of those cases where you think that you have nothing to show for the money you spent, then you try to remember what you did with it.
River Island. happy days, a whole rail of dresses at half price. I saw this gorgeous long green crushed velvet dress in a size 10, so I tried it on. It fitted perfect and my mum loved it, so I bought it. It cost me nearly £40 and I will probably never wear it, but I didn’t want to return home empty-handed. I’ll likely make more use of the nice carrier bag they give you in River Island.
Thank goodness I’m back in a warm store again. But why Burton? I don’t even know why I bothered coming into this store. I really hate this store, the staff are so rude, the service is crap and some of the clothes are really horrible.
In these circumstances, it is not particularly surprising that many informants describe themselves as poor or sub-standard shoppers, albeit they seem capable of concocting all sorts of excuses for their copious consuming shortcomings. These include star signs, gender differences and, it almost goes without saying, the marketing system itself with its proliferation of products, tempting displays, ready credit, subliminal advertising, well-oiled sales patterers and, not least, flexible prices. Getting a bargain, or even a few pence off the recommended retail price, acts as an enormous incentive to wavering would-be purchasers, so it seems.
I realise from experience that there’s nothing more upsetting than buying the most perfect article of clothing in the world only to realise that you have nothing to wear with it. Right here my mum would have me committed for doing such a frivolous thing as to waste money on something for which you have absolutely nothing else to match with it. I know that it is not logical, sensible, economical etc. etc. etc. to do this but I just can’t help myself. Maybe it’s got something to do with my star sign relative to the moon. At least that is but one of my boyfriends’ frustrated rationalising of my addiction to shopping.
I would say that in general I am not a very good shopper. This being for the main reason that I am too impatient. I do not look hard enough for the clothes that I want. If the clothes which appeal to me are not at the front of the rail, I would not bother going through the rail for something that will appeal to me.
What’s more, many shoppers take steps to combat, or at least try to control, their perceived weaknesses – keeping away from temptation, avoiding certain stores, taking a basket instead of a trolley, leaving their credit card at home, refusing to look at displays, constantly reminding themselves to stick to their plans or make a decision.
Next aisle is ‘temptation aisle’ containing sweets, chocolate, crisps, dips and popcorn. These aisles really should not be allowed. At night when I am studying I could munch my way through a bar of chocolate, several packets of crisps, popcorn and wash the heap down with a two-litre bottle of Coke. I must try hard not to indulge so much, but what the hell I’ll quit tomorrow.
I vow I will start my Christmas shopping early next year but then again I said that last year and the year before that, come to think of it. Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas if you didn’t run around the shops panicking at least once – would it?
Time was rolling on…1.25 p.m. already. Bang go my plans. Right! Self-determinately I decided that I wasn’t going to waste any more time arsing about. Straight over to Dorothy Perkins again. I’m going to decide on one of those skirts if it’s the last thing I ever do. In fact, I was simply not going to leave the shop until I found something. End of story.
Some behaviours, nevertheless, lie beyond rational explanation and are accepted as an idiosyncratic aberrance, whether they be little shopping habits, unwarranted suppositions or absurd addictions.
Visiting record shops is a favourite hobby of mine. Not just Virgin or Our Price but also smaller independent stores of which Belfast has plenty. Having been brought up in the age of Metallica, having moved on to Meat Loaf and also enjoying the chants of Janet Jackson, I find myself buying a wide range of music. It also means I find myself buying bootlegged CDs at extortionate prices, even though I realise I am being conned. Why do I do this? I am left with a mountain of CDs that are unlikely to accumulate in price within the next 700 years. Well, that’s the thing with impulse purchases.
For some unexplained reason it is entrenched in my head that I can get wonderful bargains and unusual gifts in Belfast, that I would not find anywhere else, which is complete and utter rubbish. Where I get this absurd notion from I really don’t know. There are the same things in the same shops as there are anywhere else and as I live very close to Ballymena I would undoubtedly find everything I needed there (with much less hassle).
I’ve always had this thing about socks. Some people have other addictions, with me it’s socks. I can’t pass them by. I’ve about thirty-five pairs, some nearly worn out and some never even with the price off them. I don’t need more than seven or eight pairs, which do the endless cycle between drawer, feet, washing machine, drawer, feet etc. I always wear the same ones over and over again. Now if I had empirical evidence of why this was the case I could write a book about it and make loads of dosh to buy even more socks.
Consumers, then, are well aware of and antipathetic towards their timidity, temperamentality, spendthriftery (if there is such a word) and downright stupidity. They abhor themselves for their selfishness, credulity, impetuosity and greed. They despise their parsimony, predictability, prevarication and perversity. Above all, however, they hate themselves for their penury. For most people, choosing to go to university means a three year stretch in the poor house, with no time off for good behaviour (not that there’s much of that). It is a get-a-life sentence of trying to make ends meet while former friends, acquaintances and schoolchums are earning good money, tripping the light fantastic and flaunting their recently acquired possessions. Granted, a grant cheque comes in from time to time, and a good old-fashioned blow-out ensues. When immired in the red, moreover, a good old-fashioned blow-out often ensues. After all, indulgent parents, student loans, part-time jobs and wealthy flat-mates are usually around to help keep the wolf from the door, or the landlord at least.
As I sat on the train on the Friday evening, thoughts of walking up Grafton Street with bags of lovely clothes, and hence a purse with very little money in it, were flicking back and forth. Was I wise in the head, a student who has just lifted her grant was heading to one of the best but most expensive towns in Ireland to do some shopping? Ach well, I thought, I deserve it after studying for weeks.
A penniless student…interested in shopping?…not in the slightest!! That just about sums up the attitude I have had to shopping for the past two and a half years as a university student. Yeah, sure I love shopping when I have loads of free time, not to mention MONEY, but who doesn’t.
I can’t remember when I last went shopping without feeling guilty about spending money -–well at least in the past two years! Since I got engaged a year and a half ago I feel that I must justify every purchase I make. On Sunday night after church Zena and Maxine were discussing their weekly shopping expeditions. Maxine had bought a new dress (amongst several other things) for the forthcoming Christmas dinner and Zena was chatting excitedly about the day trip to London which she was going on the following Saturday. Her trip would consist solely of shopping, shopping and more shopping – and maybe stopping for something to eat in between. Now I felt really depressed. Really depressed! This is one of the disadvantages of being a student. I need to work in my part-time job just to exist. All my money is spent on books, travel, rent and food. I generally hate shopping but for once I was suddenly getting desperate to go shopping.
Nonetheless, it is encounters with the marketing system, where the luscious fruits of the tree of consumption are within easy reach and we are surrounded by shoppers who have more money and less taste than ourselves, that the sheer awfulness of the student’s impoverished lot is brought into very sharp focus. This is especially so for mature students, many of whom have renounced the good life in order to ‘better themselves’ and are forced to face the fact that they have chosen letters after their names over lines of credit. Paper qualifications undoubtedly count in the alma mater of exchange but not the kind printed by universities. Who said forged?
- 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