7: The Love that Dare not Speak its Brand Name

After a chapter like that, you probably think I’ve run out of anti-shopping steam, that my inexhaustible supply of tales from the crypt of consumption is almost finished, that I’ll soon be reduced to scraping the barrel of acquisitional awfulness. Not so, my friends. Like the Energiser bunny, I could keep going and going and going with 18-certificate shopping-shockers that would not just make your hair curl but could render Carmen rollers completely redundant, if they weren’t already passé. Far be it for me to make you suffer any more than you have already – vicarious shopaphobia can be exceptionally tiring, I find – but the retail environment is literally littered with aggravations, exasperations, annoyances and oh-my-God-I-think-I’m-going-to-explode experiences that I’m contractually committed to bring to your attention.

There’s olfactory overload, for starters, and infuriating displays and the ever-popular problem of plenitude, having much too much to choose from.

Our first stop is Debenhams. I was looking for perfume, Jean Paul Gaultier, I have always wanted it ever since getting a free sample last year. However, this proved a little more difficult that I thought. First, trying to find the appropriate stand and secondly trying to avoid the being sprayed by the various sales reps standing to attention in the middle of the floor armed with their sprayers. This however was unsuccessful and I ended up smelling like a guinea pig released from the Body Shop.
(female, 21)

My problem regarding this shop is that having to rummage through all the rails in an attempt to actually uncover an item of clothing that one would actually consider wearing, is extremely tiring. Supposedly, there is some form of consistency in merchandising of sizes, however I come to realise that this concept does not seem to hold forth in reality. Waiting near the exit I overhear a passer-by commenting, “this shop would be bearable if you had all day to go through the rails of merchandise”, that is of course if you could call it merchandise. Really it baffles me as to why such vast amounts of people actually shop in here, as far as I am concerned there is no pleasure involved whatsoever, rather it is a chose.
(female, 20)

I firstly make my way directly to the training shoes, as I’ve already talked myself into believing I need a new pair of trainers. But what a selection on offer, Reebok, Nike, Adidas, Prince, Hi-Tec etc. How am I going to choose? Maybe I should stick to a conventional trainer, maybe a trainer with extra flair or maybe something bright. Oh, I really do need some help. After pondering for a moment I reach for a pair of Nike cross-trainers.
(male, 23)

Then there’s unarmed combat with the elements and the malicious brolly brigade, not to mention wrestling with shopping centre wildlife, low-life and, God help us, the get-a-life contingent.

Despite her complaints, we exit Castle Court only to be greeted by even heavier rain and colder wind but of course mother was armed with an umbrella, which didn’t stand a cat’s chance in hell of surviving the elements never mind keeping us dry. The weather was not to be the only problem, indeed it would seem that half the population of Belfast and beyond had also decided to shop this evening and if there is one thing that will drive me into a raging frenzy it is being pushed and shoved. Not only that but people also seem to lose control over their umbrellas and these unattended weapons, capable of poking your eye out with one fell swoop, come at you with vitriolic vengeance.
(female, 22)

Pedestrianised zones make shopping more enjoyable as they reduce the risk of being hit by old grannies or boy racers. One thing I hate about ‘vehicle-free’ streets is that they attract pigeons. They don’t move for me; they would stand until you could tramp on them before they would move. They fly low, practically trying to take the head off you. When they foul on you, it is supposed to be good luck. If I fouled on them, I would be reported to the police or the USPCA. I can’t win. I used to wonder why Coleraine’s main car park was full of pigeons and their foul. Why? Because that fucking idiot who takes the tickets keeps feeding them!
(male, 21)

I got on the bus for the five mile trip and to my horror none other than Ricky Thompson was sitting alone. My conscience forced me to sit beside him. Ricky is known as the “slate-roofer” of our area because of his inability to tell the truth. For a full half hour I had to listen to Ricky’s various spoofs. Apparently he would have won the Lottery the previous week but his sister forgot to put his winning ticket in. This was normal. I finally got off the bus and bid farewell to Ricky, who was probably going to lunch with the likes of Naomi Campbell…I jumped on the bus home and, oh no, it’s Ricky Thompson again. However, this time he’s sitting beside another unfortunate listener. I acknowledge both of them and sit two seats behind them on my own. Half way through the journey home my day is made. Ricky, for a change, is telling fibs but his mate knows the score. He says what I’ve been dying to say to Ricky for years. “For once in your life, Ricky, stop talking shite. Get a fucking life, will you?” This is bliss. For once Ricky is gobsmacked. Getting off the bus I say goodbye to Ricky, laughing to myself that his parents should get him a shovel for Christmas, to dispose of the shit he talks.
(male, 21)

And then, of course, there’s the sheer awfulness of certain tat-filled stores (tatatorias, presumably), as well as the unnecessary extravagance of having to buy presents for other people like parents, sisters and undeserving second cousins twice removed. Not only is it so much more difficult and, frankly, wasteful than shopping for ourselves – let’s be honest, we buy them what we really want or want someone to buy us – but the ungrateful buggers don’t appreciate our efforts in any event.1

Some hours and many miles later, I definitely realise shopping has turned from an enthusiastic excitement to a chore. I enter a tacky shops called Internationale, full of the same tasteless clothing as all the other shops I have visited and revisited. Except in Internationale there was absolutely no way of walking between the cramped displays of clothing, which are incidentally blocked by plonkers with zombie-like stares. I’ve reached boiling point; it’s all too much.
(male, 21)

I hate rushing and hurrying and getting myself into a fluster. This always seems to happen when I go shopping for other people. Firstly, you don’t know what they’d like, you know what you’d like but would they like it too? So you end up buying something that you would like. Mostly I would walk into a store and say to myself, you’re in here to get such and such a present, then I would rush around until I got that person a gift. Once you have the gift bought you always see something better afterwards and don’t know whether to keep the one you have or try and change it and get the other items. I don’t know.
(male, 22)

Okay, so two down, only four to go. I suddenly had a gnawing thought from the depths of my mind ‘it’s the thought that counts, not the price or the present’. Yeah, right, maybe in the seventeenth century, but this is the 1990s, where money talks and genetically engineered bullshit walks. As long as I spent a reasonable amount on each family member I didn’t care what they received. But surely this wasn’t the reason to buy gifts for loved ones. Oh yes, I forgot, if I spend quite a substantial amount on them, they will be obliged to do the same for me.
(male, 22)

Above and beyond the agonistics of the agora, there is one aspect of the late-twentieth-century marketing melee that almost doesn’t bear thinking about. Indeed, I was seriously tempted to overlook this grotesque blemish on the physiognomy of purchasing behaviour in the hope that you wouldn’t notice its absence. However, I can sense that, having coped successfully with incontinent pigeons and free-range, albeit fragrant, guinea-pigs, you are more than capable of handling the horror to end all horrors that is – gulp! – shop assistants.

There, you go! I’ve uttered the words that stick in the craw of even the most mild-mannered customers, that cause otherwise polite procurers to retch uncontrollably, or expectorate prodigiously at least. With good reason, let it be said, because sales personnel are by far the most repugnant features on the retailing landscape (no, actually, more offensive again are ‘trainee managers’ – shop clerks with knobs on). They either ignore the customer completely, preferring to chat idly amongst themselves – invariably about last night’s sexual exploits – or they are unbelievably assertive, demanding a decision, which unfailingly involves pecuniary commitments of the arm and a leg variety, before the bewildered shopper has had a chance to get fully acquainted with the establishment.

The smell was chokingly nauseating and the heat almost unbearable. A blonde, chewing-gummed assistant was standing at the door, wearing trashingly too much make-up and bejewelled with at least fifteen rings. “Arright?”, she asked me in a broad Belfast lilt. As I moseyed around the shop I could not help myself from hearing a rather loud conversation between two of the sales assistants. I obviously was eavesdropping mid-conversation but managed to hear enough. The two ladies seemed to be engrossed chatting and did not notice my presence, which speaks volumes about their customer service. On hearing the line, 'I didn’t really go with him, you made me,’ I promptly left that store emphatic that what I required was definitely not there.
(female, 22)

To my delight it is my size, so off I go to the changing room. I have hardly got the curtains pulled when I hear the sales assistant call out, “Is everything okay?” “Who does she think I am, Speedy Gonzales?”, I mutter under my breath. As soon as I draw the curtains to show the outfit to mum, the sales assistant follows it up by saying, “The jacket is a perfect match for the skirt”. I’m unsure, but I should not let her influence me. Of course she thinks it matches my skirt perfectly – if I buy it she will make a good sale, I think to myself.
(female, 22)

Furthermore, they are never around when you need them and, even when they are available, their product knowledge is substandard verging on subnormal. A disdainful stare, capable of boring through the back of even the most avid shopaphile, is a job requirement, as is a very limited vocabulary of cliched sales talk, consistently (in)articulated in a grating regional or working class accent. It also helps if the assistant is capable of avoiding the customer’s eye whilst taking their money and manhandling their expensive purchases is always good for repeat business, though not as much as the traditional custom of lavish discourtesy. The customer, remember, is never right.

Walking down the street we both spotted an off-licence, so we decided to get a ‘carry-out’ for that night. After entering the shop we are immediately stared at by two ‘old’ men. One was operating the cash register, while the other stood at the far end of the shop. I felt as if they were giving us the impression that young girls shouldn’t be drinking. A wave of guilt came over me and I suddenly asked myself the question, ‘Should I be going out tonight and getting pissed or should I sit in and do some studying?’ I ultimately answered this question by putting four cans of Budweiser on the counter and being as polite as possible to the old gentlemen. We were given dirty looks by both men until we eventually left. I don’t think I can recall feeling so uncomfortable in a shop before - I was hoping it would be worth it later on that night.
(female, 22)

A passing sales assistant stopped to ask me if I was all right. “I’m grand,’ I replied. ‘That’s a gorgeous wee suit, isn’t it?’, her strong Derry accent cuts right through me. ‘Yes, it’s lovely’, I replied, trying to shake her off. ‘It’s in beige and black as well, gon try it on yerself if ye wanna see what it’s like.’ ‘Thanks,’ I muttered, trying not to be rude, if there’s one thing that rags me it’s a pushy sales assistant. Why can’t they understand that if I want any help I’m quite capable of asking for it. I move round to the other side and pick up the beige jacket, no sooner have I it in my hand than there’s one of them buzzing around me. ‘Have ye seen it in the brown?’ Yes, I have seen it in the fucking brown and the beige and the black, I want to roar at her. But I don’t.
(female, 20)

What I find even more annoying is a shop assistant who is carrying out a full conversation with someone else whilst serving me. They don’t even take the trouble to look at you when asking for the money. In my opinion this is the height of bad manners. By this stage my nerves are usually so frayed that I come out of the shop ‘spitting bullets’.
(female, 20)

Truth to tell, a plausible salesperson is capable of fleecing almost anyone, especially, so it seems, our impecunious introspectors, our penny-wise-pound-foolish greenback greenhorns. There’s nothing like a good liar to make our essayists emancipate the plastic, though these are so few and far between that meeting a unicorn in the whip and bridle department of Marks and Spencer is much more likely.

My parents had given me some money for Christmas so I came across a pair of grey pin-stripe trousers I really liked but they were £57, a lot on the expensive side for me, but after 40 minutes of trying them on and off and prancing about in front of mirrors to the front, back and sides of me, and the sales assistant saying ‘they are really gorgeous on you’ and the song ‘because you’re gorgeous’ dancing through my head I decided to buy them. Fuck it, I looked really great in them!!
(female, 21)

On entering, I was greeted by the sales assistant from behind a luminous counter. “Hello,” she said with a smile. I return her smile, rather meekly I might add, and ask to see a selection of the digital watches on display. Trying on a couple, I deliberately gave a negative response in an attempt to see how far she will push the sale. I didn’t have to wait a moment and out from under the counter she produced another watch and explained its various features, before it too was held against my wrist. ‘It’s a bit on the pricey side,’ I retorted, my eyes catching sight of the price label for the first time. Thinking she would duck that remark, to my surprise she agreed. However, I was assured that it was the best of that particular range and had all the features of the last two and more. I wasn’t planning to purchase a watch of that price, but I felt I was being sold the benefits of it very well. I could almost feel myself needing the extra features, for some reason, I don’t know why. Maybe it was to keep up with popular fashion and be trendy. I tried on the watch again, querying, ‘How long would it last?’ and when she just happened to mention the extended battery lifespan, it was at that point I decided to buy it after all and proudly pulled out my wallet.
(male, 21)

Many informants, admittedly, are cognisant of and sympathetic towards the often unpleasant lot of underpaid and over-stretched sales assistants. But not too much. For the most part, they are treated with suspicion, sarcasm, scepticism and scorn. They are only after the sale and seem to work on the principle that a card in the hand is worth two per-cent commission. Minimum!

The shop assistant seemed to think otherwise and tried to persuade me that the suit didn’t seem to big and in fact it looked very well on me. (I wondered, had she got eyes or cash signs in her head?) This annoyed me even more – that someone could so blatantly lie just to sell something. At this I removed the jacket and promptly left the shop. By this stage in my shopping trip I was extremely aggravated and annoyed and felt that I would never find a suit which would not only appeal to me, but which would fit and which I could afford.
(female, 21)

From Miss Selfridge to Gap to Parks to Debenhams, you name it we went in. But did we purchase? No. All I experienced was hopping in and out of changing rooms, getting all hot and bothered, with shop assistants telling you that everything looked lovely on you even though you were poured into the little black number or your spare tyre was bulging out over the waist of the trousers. Why do people do that? Are they on commission? I would never tell anyone that something looks lovely on them when you know deep down that she looks like fuck all in it. Left Castle Court feeling fat and tired, thinking that’s it, diet starts tomorrow.
(female, 22)

Now, no-one with a brain-cell to their name would deny that salespeople are pretty awful, truly awful, awesomely awful. But the fact of the matter is that we can deal with them. We can live with their offensiveness, we can overcome their ignorance, we can rise above their stupidity. There’s no getting below it, that’s for sure. We can take whatever they throw at us. Our purchases principally. The real problem, as I see it, is that sales clerks act in concert. Not with each other, I hasten to add, though they do unquestionably hunt in packs. Their primary function, rather, is as a kind of anti-shopping catalyst, as something that when added to an already volatile situation, makes routine consumer behaviour go critical, ballistic, thermo-fucking-nuclear.

The point I’m trying to make, I suppose, is that all of the aforementioned annoyances work in combination. It’s not just a question of wonky shopping trolleys, or lengthy queues, or obstreperous others, or deranged grannies, or irritating offspring, or our own indecisiveness, or grumpy shop assistants, or the general hustle and bustle, or the pre-Christmas rodeo. It’s the fact that most, if not all, of these things happen at once or at some point in the interminable proceedings. Shopping trips, in short, are a sort of surrogate Chinese water torture, where each individual droplet is inconsequential but when added together they can, and do, drive most of us completely, totally, irrevocably INSANE.

Consider the following far from atypical adventure involving lunatic sales clerks, intimidating atmospherics, embarrassing acquisitions, incomprehensible over-abundance and shopping with an enthusiastic mother-to-be:

I have known my friend Claire since we were eleven, so we’ve been acquainted for over ten years now. I was under the opinion that I knew each facet of her persona…Recently, however, everything has changed. Why?, you might ask. Well, we haven’t fallen out. The simple fact is, she’s having a baby!!! (or at least she will be in May). Our weekly rendezvous has turned into an experience so unnerving I find myself approaching each Friday with severe apprehension. What used to be a waggish fashion frenzy has now become an in-depth comparison shop for everything from designer buggies to belly-button cream (ugh!).

To give you an idea, the following is a precise account of last Friday’s shopping experience. Claire meets me at the station as usual and asks in her typical caring manner how things are going at Uni. I’m beginning to think that she’s back to her ‘old self’ and the last three Friday’s have just been a hormone thing. WRONG!! After a detailed account of last Tuesday’s morning sickness she makes the inevitable beeline towards Boots. (The metamorphosis has accelerated and she’s now using the word ‘cute’ over twenty times a minute.)

‘I got another voucher at the clinic on Monday for Malupa infant juice’, she enthuses. ‘That’s handy, what flavour this time?,’ I’m asking, trying to sound as delirious about the whole thing as she is. Actually, it’s the only response I could think of.

‘Apple and cherry, isn’t that so cute?,’ Claire shrieks.

Already I’m puzzled and decide to just shut-up and follow. When we reach Boots, it’s not simply a matter of picking up the juice. She now engages in a complete nutritional analysis of every brand of baby food on the shelves – Farley’s Breakfast Times, Cow & Gate desserts and some Boots brand pulpy-gunk in jars with ‘no added sugar’. As if it wasn’t unappetising enough, without removing the only recognisable ingredient. To make matters worse, there isn’t an E-number in sight!

‘You know the baby won’t be able to eat this stuff until it’s over three-months, Claire,’ I point out hoping she’ll take the hint.

‘Don’t be silly Lorraine, it has a two-year shelf-life and besides I might run out.’ She glares at me, obviously exasperated. All hopes of getting a glance at No 17’s new autumn range disappear and once again I’m engulfed into a domain paying homage to Mr and Mrs Johnston.

Now we’re looking at nappies. I’ve never come across anything so baffling than the stay-dry, comfy-leg, elasticated-waist, double sticky-sided, midi, maxi, mini, midi-maxi, mini-midi variations in probably the most objectionable items associated with babycare.

Whatever happened to small, medium and large? Isn’t this taking market segmentation to its extremes? They even come in different colours – pink bunnies for girls and blue for boys. PLEASE!

Armed with a 52 pack of Pampers Newborn and the apple and cherry gunk, Claire drags me off to Mothercare. Everything about this store makes me feel paranoid and gives me knots in my stomach more severe than anything I’ve ever experienced before. This may sound like a gross exaggeration but take it from me, the term ‘in-store atmospherics’ takes on a whole new meaning and suddenly meeting Freddy in the Land of Nod is a credible alternative. The shop assistants, complete with ‘mumsie’ look stare at me with hardened eyes, they’re thinking ‘INTRUDER.’ I manage to find a nice, safe, out-of-view spot behind the mobiles and I’m starting to breathe normally again when Claire hauls me over to the Mother and Baby Room to see the ‘free disposables and dotty changing mats.’ Bashing my elbow on the door and squinting through the glare of pastels, I suddenly feel as if I’ve just contaminated a place more sterile than the inside of a bottle of Vortex.

‘Oh, isn’t this nice,’ I croak, breaking out in a cold sweat and smiling weakly at the guy putting in the lighting. ‘ESCAPE’ is screaming through my head and my breathing resembles Claire’s demonstration of yesterday’s anti-natal class.

‘Quick Claire, you have to phone Florence at twelve, remember?’, I’m gasping hoping she won’t realise it’s only ten-thirty. I ignore her objecting groans, I storm past mummy shop assistant one and nearly break my neck on what resembles a bean-bag on wheels. Mummy shop assistant two sniggers and my brolly catches on something as I hurry towards the exit. I turn around to find my bizarre friend stooping over a scattered carton of nursing bras ready for the shelf.

‘Gosh, I’ll have to get these soon and maternity knickers,’ she divulges with total non-discretion. CRINGE! Mummy shop assistant one rushes to the mother-with-child’s assistance and with a warm smile assures her not to worry and that she’ll see to it. She hands her a voucher for a free Boots baby pack!

My heart is pounding now and my throat is so dry that I can only mouthe the word ‘Sorry’ to the shop assistants, already decided on the malefactor. Claire goes off to price the bendy Bugle (of Rainbow fame), we saw on the way in and I edge away from the two motherly beings. It was as if they knew Claire was ‘one of them’ and I was an unalterable infiltrator polluting their aseptic environment with anti-baby vibes.

Maybe it’s the thought of having half-a-dozen little darlings (?) running round my feet. The whole thing scares me so much and at this point in my life seems less appealing than plunging my hands into a sink full of slugs. I’m sorry, but I just cannot get all ‘gooey’ and ‘cooey’ over things like gripe water and teething gel. Don’t get me wrong – I love kids, as long as they belong to other people and I only have them on short-term loan (preferably at a price and free video thrown in)….

Anyway, after paying for the first instalment of her ‘bargain buggy’, Claire decides to look at the maternity wear in Dorothy Perkins. I sigh with relief and the thought of visiting a familiar haunt that doesn’t smell of Dettol and is patronised by ‘normal folk’ and those merely on the route to parenthood but haven’t yet been ensnared by the mummy mob. She tries on a pair of maternity dungarees. I though the idea was to disguise the bump, these things make it more obvious that donning a lycra mini at eight and a half months. Despite my attempts at dissuasion such as ‘I don’t think they’re your colour’, and when that didn’t work, a less subtle, ‘I hate them’, she still goes ahead with her purchase.

At this stage, I’m exhausted, the plastic handle on the nappy bag is boring permanent lines across my fingers, my hair is all over the place, and my knees are starting to cave in. Mum-to-be suddenly realises that her accessory in the decision-making process has just about had enough. ‘Oh Lorraine,’ she symphasises, ‘I forgot to ask if you had anything to buy’.

She’s standing there, looking radiant, with her hair scraped up into a bundle of dark curls, perfectly formed on top of her head. She gives me one of her bountiful bear hugs and says, ‘I’ve got something to cheer you up’. She produces a black and white photo. which looks like the screen when your TV goes on the blink.

‘What is it?’, I question, confused but relieved it’s not another article in the gruesome guide to baby management.

‘That’s it!’, she whispers excitedly.

‘What?’ (I’m getting frustrated).

‘The baby, of course’, Claire gushes and bubbling over with exuberance she points out all its visible organs and tiny features. Instantly, the whole shopping trip takes on a purpose and I’m overwhelmed with reprehension at my uncooperative demeanour. Suddenly, conscious-stricken but by no means reformed I’m at least more content to share in her enthusiasm.

This spate of unpremeditated concern unearths the indication of some vague maternal intuition and I find myself asking, ‘Are you sure it’ll like the apple and cherry gunk?!’
(female, 22)

The trauma that is going shopping, then, is totally contingent. The tiniest little thing can turn an otherwise everyday, routine, normal, banal, been-there-done-that-don’t-buy-the-souvenirs-any-more shopping expedition into a trial of strength, a dystopian ordeal, a Sisyphian challenge, a Herculean labour of Augean proportions. Like an erratic space station, ever poised to spin off on a fatal burn-up-on-re-entry trajectory, the shopping orbit is finely tuned, delicately balanced, gyroscopically oscillating between Paradise and Pandemonium.2

We could, I grant you, halt the shopping count-down at this particular point and abort our marketing mission, our textual determination to boldly split the infinitive of interpretive research. Consumption, we can safely conclude, is completely uncertain, unstable, unpredictable, an inexplicable mystery to rank alongside ley lines, crop circles, the Philadelphia incident and the precise species of marsupial woven into William Shatner’s toupee in Star Trek Four.3

However, to walk away at this point, to step aside and let the liberal artistes take over, to summarise shopping with the scholarly equivalent of a Gallic shrug, is hardly sufficient. We expect much, much more from our social scientists, our survey-slingers, our participant observateurs, our argonauts of alienation, anomie and authenticity (one foot on the quayside, the other on the fast departing vessel). We require some kind of conceptual coming together, communitas, closure. We need a model, a framework, a theory, an axiom, a goddam law, or two. A structure, in short.

Don’t we?

Since you ask, it is indeed possible to impose a degree of order upon the introspective reflections. Reluctant as I am to contain the contingent, assay the essays, commute the sentences and tie down the unteathered dirigibles of acquisitional discourse, I can think of several ways of settling our shopping accounts, arranging our consumer compositions and unscrambling our essayistic eggs, if that’s what they are.

For example, if I were a structuralist of Levi-Straussian stripe, I could concoct any number of binary oppositions that encapsulate the commentaries (self versus other, pleasure versus pain, etc.) and my comments on the commentaries (raw data versus cooked findings), although they’re a bit restrictive for our free-wheelin’, butt-kickin’, no-shittin’, anything goes postmodern, pre-millennial, neo-romantic times. If, on the other hand, I was a bed-wettin’, thumb-suckin’, teddy-huggin’, car-washin’, desk-tidyin’, CD-catalogin’, anally retentive mummy’s boy, I could interrogate the introspections for their psychoanalytical content. Actually, I might come back to that. If, furthermore, I were a narratologist of Proppian persuasion, Greimasite inclination or Genettique engineering, I could analyse the plot lines in terms of their increasingly hackneyed schemata. Many of the accounts, certainly, contain overtones of the chivalric quest and its classic Hollywood counterpart – boy gets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl.4

However, as you’ve probably realised by now, I’m neither a structuralist, nor a storyteller, nor a couch potato (of the French Freud rather than tube tuber variety, let it be said). I’m more of a simile-snouted, trope-truffling figure-digger. A metaphorical hunter and gatherer. I like to root around for root metaphors – sick, sad and superfluous, but aren’t we all? – and there’s no shortage of allusions in the introspective accounts. Ranging from standard spatial (raising/lowering spirits, day going downhill, shop ’til drop) and temporal (time speeding up, slowing down, lost track of) conceits to the gustatory (going bananas, eat into lunch-hour, hunger for new image) and architectural (build hopes up, construct elaborate fantasies, shop like building site), these figures of speech come in all shapes and sizes (if you’ll pardon the trope). Many, admittedly, are metaphorical expressions that we regularly employ without due regard to their tropological status. Dead metaphors, in other words. You know the sort of thing I mean - needles in haystacks, weights from shoulders, raining stair-rods, cutting through crowds, standing like spare parts, glimmers of hope, looming checkouts, fistfuls of dollars, faces burning with rage and suchlike. Nevertheless, four favoured figures are especially prevalent, not to say pervasive.

The first of these is animalisation; that is, the attribution of creature-like qualities to human beings. As a glance through the above excerpts indicates, the protagonists, antagonists and general cast list of the students’ introspective essays comprise a veritable marketing menagerie of squirrels, spiders, stick insects, guinea pigs, ants, beavers, vultures, eagles, elephants, mice, rats, sheep, lost sheep, lambs, lambs to slaughter, cats, Cheshire cats, dogs, lap dogs, puppy dogs, wounded dogs, hound dogs, dogs’ dinners, bats out of hell, bears with sore heads, bulls in china shops, headless chickens, blue-arsed flies and, needless to say, pigs in shite. Queues snake, slither or move at a snail’s pace. Shoppers pounce, stampede, canter, gallop and trot, or make a beeline, or are the bee’s knees or flit, circle and crawl around the buzzing streets. People pig-out at McDonalds, or stuff themselves like turkeys, or hunt in packs, or want to crawl into a hole, or feel like a fish out of water, or a goldfish in a bowl. Bird-brained shop assistants bark up the wrong tree, don’t stand a cat’s chance in hell, or chase a sale like hounds after a fox. Metonymically speaking, moreover, we are beset by grunting traffic wardens, growling stomachs or eagle-eyed bargain hunters. We fleece or pick over the carcasses of display racks, hop in and out of changing rooms, flap about aimlessly and, in our more alluring moments, look like Bigfoot, a bulldog chewing a wasp or a baby giraffe that has shed its skin!

Just as other people are accorded animalistic characteristics, so too inanimate objects are anthropomorphised. Carrier bags bite into our hands, purchases snuggle, wrestle or copulate in the bottom of shopping trolleys, products hide themselves from us, or draw customers towards them, or call out to passers-by, or beckon innocent bystanders, as indeed do shops and shopping centres generally. Although some jeans are carnivorous, preying on the unsuspecting, others are old friends, best friends and friends of the family, though many are on their last legs. Public address systems suffer from adenoid problems, wallets are painfully thin, cheeseburgers limp, fries are anorexic, wet lettuces stand all around and bank accounts are on the critical list. Goods tickle our fancy, plastic cards wink at us, money pointedly refuses to leave pockets or purses, various body-parts (hair, legs, noses, eyes and taste buds) appear to have minds of their own and, bad as the bowels of certain shopping centres undoubtedly are, at least one person was spotted ‘walking into the sunset hand-in-hand with a shopping trolley’. Several shops are affable, many displays are healthy, sandwiches say hello to stomachs, shopping lists are as long as our arms and, from time to time, anthropomorphised products manage to communicate with animalised consumers (such as the after-shave that promises to ‘call many fish out of the sea’). What’s more, in a classic instance of the so-called pathetic fallacy, the weather not only matches the mood of consumers but the same is also true of in-store music, or at least it ought to be.

Another paddling pool of metaphorical medleys is games and sport. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the comparative youth and presumably active lifestyles of the essayists. Men, moreover, seem particularly prone to indulge in sportspeak, occasionally brilliantly it has to be said. Apart from the widespread utilisation of ludic figures of speech – in at the deep end, throwing in the towel, out of the traps, let the game begin, racing round the shops, follow the leader, child’s play, obstacle courses, hunting for bargains, getting kitted out, receiving public warnings, thoughts running around in one’s head etc. – a number of more explicit sporting allusions are evident. These range from the Denby Demolition Derby in Debenhams, through going ten rounds with Mike Tyson and manifold maze-like shopping malls, to playing those time-honoured parlour games, ‘spot the reject,’ ‘which hat is most horrible?’, ‘climb every mountain of merchandise’, ‘match the right sized dress and hanger’, ‘keep the boyfriend/girlfriend out of certain expensive stores’ and that oft-performed, perfectly choreographed street shuffle, ‘step to the left, step to the right, apologise, left again, right again and bump into each other’. Car parking, similarly, is like poker or roulette, and finally getting a space is akin to winning the Lottery; we race other customers to the checkout finishing tape, bus drivers earn triple Air Miles for every pedestrian they hit, decisions are periodically made by tossing a coin and waiting for one’s goods to appear from the stockroom is, according to an admittedly imaginative introspector, not dissimilar to The Generation Game.

Finally, I reached the final stage of the process, the ‘collection point’. Here, I simply had to wait for my purchases to come up from the murky dungeon below. I watched as all the items came up on a conveyor belt, which reminded me of the Generation Game. Next thing Brucey would be standing there, shouting out “McDaid, nice to see you, to see you nice!” And Larry Grayson shouting “Shut that door!” For one split second, I could picture the scene: Brucey, wig and all, a cuddly toy then appeared, it was all fitting together in my mind. I was dying to shout out a big “Wooo!” like they do on the show when it appears. Instead of Brucey or Larry, I was confronted by a spotty twenty-year old Margie Proops, a YTS trainee. (I’d thrown up more brains the night before outside the Anchor!) Twenty minutes later the scene had changed completely as people had started to get irritated with waiting and being given the wrong items. A big Donegal farmer was shouting at Margie and she then started given them as good as she was getting: cursing, calling names, starting to get very intense. So much for the customer is always right!
(male, 21)

The sporting metaphor that is most frequently pressed into service, however, pertains to motor racing in general and Formula One in particular. This is the world of the turbo-charged buggy, where coffee breaks are pit-stops or refuelling opportunities, other shoppers are overtaken or nudged off the circuit, checkout lines are starting grids manqué, motor-mouthed sales assistants talk at the tempo of Michael Schumaker and walking round the shops is a tedious exercise in lap-counting.

Finally Castlecourt, now this was something I wanted to see. Very impressive, but round it once and I was hoping I wasn’t going to see it again. But the once-round was like the warm-up lap in the F1 Grand Prix. Now the serious race was on purchases were made at Next (of course), Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins and the Sweater Shop amongst others (and the pit stop was at the café on the second floor). With the trophies collected, it was time for the lap of honour. The three laps took nearly three hours, even Team Jordan finishes races in shorter times.
(male, 21)

Closely related to the sporting trope, in so far as the two are often considered analogous, is the warfare metaphor. Again principally employed by male informants, albeit not exclusively so, this treats shopping as a battlefield, as a theatre of military operations, as a fight to the death. Armies of sales clerks descend upon us; other customers are barbarian hordes; serious, occasionally fatal, war wounds are an ever-present possibility; and people are constantly on the point of exploding, detonation, or ticking like time-bombs, or about to surrender. Men, moreover, are required to stand sentry-like outside female changing rooms, while women have war waged upon them by inconsiderate fashion designers. Attacks are mounted on shopping malls, where we are bombarded by musical missiles, have to fight through the crowds, feel like summarily executing treasonous sales assistants, endure squadrons of kamikaze shopping trolleys and, even after the stores have been ostensibly invaded, over-run and razed, we unfailingly find ourselves forced to retreat, spitting bullets as we go. On occasion, indeed, our precious acquisitions are accidentally left behind -- abandoned to their fate like US airmen in the Cambodia of consumption -- the loss of which thereafter haunts us.

As I marched down the street, floating with excitement, all of a sudden I noticed my right hand felt lighter – not as much weight hanging on it. At that point, a bubble appeared in my brain quoting ‘boots’. I had left my Caterpillars behind in Burtons. I was in such a state of shock and panic. My behaviour changed in an instant. I had to hurry back to Burtons, not knowing whether my boots would still be there. The thought of 70 down the drain…
(male, 21)

Looking down towards my bags, rather pleased that I had completed my shopping, I realised that one of my bags is missing. Panic-stricken because I have mislaid a pair of gloves that I paid 20 for, I vigorously search through all my bags, but it was a hopeless cause. I gradually became reconciled to the fact that Belfast being such a large city, and with me having visited a large percentage of the retail outlets, the probability of my retrieving the parcel was extremely slim. The unfortunate occurrence really did take away from some of the enjoyment of the day and left a growing depression ready to lodge inside me.
(female, 20)

Espionage and subterfuge, furthermore, sometimes prove necessary, as for example when secret merchandise is deliberately hidden in carefully camouflaged, subterranean, bomb-proof stockrooms; or when Operation Car Park is in full swing; or indeed when alien invaders suddenly make an appearance, as they often do. For the most part, however, we are content to march from store to store, like a man on a mission, protected by parental sergeant-majors, while scanning the shelves with bargain-detecting radar eyes, and wishing we had a personal rocket-launcher to blast other customers, lorry drivers and street vendors out of the way. At times, in truth, the shopping terrain is so difficult that our military metaphors – obviously suffering from shell-shock, war weariness, trench foot, mustard gas inhalation or, possibly, Gulf War Syndrome – get hopelessly mixed up, not to say confused.

We marched off in a swarm to find out how to get to our initial destination, then Edna noticed a map of the mall, so another pit stop was called at this stage in the proceedings.
(male, 23)

The fourth, and in certain respects the most interesting inhabitant of our consumer conurbation/ immigrant in our marketing melting pot/swimmer in our shopping gene pool (hey, I can mix my metaphors too!) is manning a nautical-cum-aquatic lifeboat. Its interest lies in the fact that, according to researchers who have examined national differences in metaphorical preferences, seafaring phraseologies are particularly characteristic of British/Irish culture. This certainly seems to be the case for our peg-legged informants who frequently employ swashbuckling expressions, are prone to similistic sea-sickness and inclined to dance the figurative hornpipe (not easy with a gammy leg, believe me). As for their nautical gaits, acquired after copious infusions of holy water and dalliances with the so-called ‘blonde in a black dress’ [Guinness], the less said the better.

Thus retail stores and shopping centres comprise ports of call; tidal waves of crowds have to be navigated through, or plunged into, or given a wide berth, as they rise, subside, stream past and aimlessly flow or eddy about; while those foolish enough to rely on public transportation are consigned to the slow boat at best and coffin ships at worst. Shopping trolleys, to be sure, sail serenely along (when they’re not candidates for keel-hauling, that is), we drift from store to store, meander through lakes of shoppers, are sprayed by waterfalls or cascades of objects on display and, after being submerged in thought, find ourselves buoyed up or even ‘floating’ when that marketing mermaid known as a bargain is finally encountered. Although shopping voyages are never totally calm – not least, because of the risks associated with surfacing too suddenly from our beds, since many heads are still a whirlpool from the night before – certain welcoming establishments stand out like lighthouses, safe havens or, on occasion, oases. They comprise much-needed ports in a storm, albeit islands of seating in the middle of the mall (where the shopping mainstream parts on either side) perform a broadly similar function. As for River Island itself:

Have you ever wondered how River Island got its name? It seems to me that the river has burst its banks and the only island people hang on to is the check-out counter, due to its notoriously long queue, with one person operating the till looking and acting like she had the worst job in the world. The queue obviously not encouraging any speed in her skills. Annoying as this might seem, it still does not deter me from having a peek. I begin to think of pyjamas, slippers, even River Island accessories for a present, but a glance at the queue again quickly makes my mind up for me, and I dismiss the thought.
(female, 21)

Of course, seafaring, warfaring, sportfaring and anthropofaring metaphors are not the only ones incarcerated in the introspective penitentiary. The compositional cell-blocks are chock a block with time-serving tropes, old-lag allusions and high-security similes, all the way from musical (waltz through shop, operatic tones, bongos in stomach, music to ears ) and medical (shopping as illness, disease, heebie-jeebies, blood boiling) to meteorological (hurricane, whirlwind, tornadoes, lightening, breeze past, evaporating excitement) and mechanical (shopping on automatic pilot, queue like conveyor belt, robotic sales assistants). Tempting though it is to develop this prison house of language conceit – life sentences, lexiconvicts and condemned metaphors waiting on death row, spring immediately to mind5 – it may be more fruitful to consider a figurative feature of the introspective essays that is so powerful and, indeed, so frequently encountered in the consumer behaviour literature that the distinction between image and reality, truth and falsity, literal and metaphorical is not only blurred but obliterated. I’m referring, needless to say, to sex. That’s right, sex. Sex, sex, sex. One more time, SEX! Have I got your attention yet?

Now, it is a well-known fact of life that people who write incessantly about sex are somewhat lacking in carnal knowledge, that their textual achievements disguise sexual shortcomings, that their lunch-boxes contain little more than a shrivelled stalk of celery, a slice or two of Rivita-lite and a knob of butter that’s passed it’s best-before date. Thankfully, I’m an exception to this otherwise inviolate rule. I am very well versed in libidinous lore (I’ve read the books); I dine regularly on triple-decker submarine sandwiches (if once per annum isn’t ‘regular’ I don’t know what is); and, far be it for me to boast, but I am reliably informed that condoms come in four sizes: small, medium, large and Stephen Brown (maybe it’s the other way around). However, even a man of the world wide web, such as myself, was deeply shocked by the frequency with which sex reared its ugly head in the introspective essays. Jesus, I thought I was going to have to break out the bromide at one stage.

However, before you jump to the wrong conclusion or make some derogatory remark about my slap-happy research procedures – what’s wrong with happy slappers, I say – let me just remind you that the students were asked to write about shopping in general. Amatorial experiences were not solicited. They weren’t, I tell you! Do you really think I’m the sort of sad, middle-aged, onanist who’d ask his students to write about sex under the guise of scholarship? Do you think I’m the kind of para-pervert that gets his kicks from pouring over undergraduates’ erotic fantasies? Do you think I’ll get away with it? It may be gross moral turpitude to you Vice-chancellor, but it’s solid empirical research to me, though I appreciate that the university’s Rustication Committee may disagree.

Believe me or believe me not, boys and girls, it’s entirely up to you. But libidinous anecdotes were not encouraged. Honest. (Not that I’d tell you if they were.) That said, I suspect my sample was slightly more tumescent than most. After all, it contained quite a few people with an agricultural background, and you know what they say about farmers and their flocks. What’s more, it included a large number of post-adolescent males and you know what it’s like at that age, when sex looms large in the psyche, as indeed does largeness. The sample, come to think of it, was almost entirely composed of single people and you don’t need me to tell you that there’s nothing quite like marriage or parenthood to put passion in its place. Finally, and lest you’ve forgotten the most pertinent point of all, our informants were made up of undergraduate students. What more need be said? - except that they really ought to be hosed down, forced to wear chastity attire at all times or unceremoniously gelded without anaesthetic.

So, what did I discover on sifting through my students’ sex ’n’ shopping fantasies, apart from the fact that I’ve obviously led a very sheltered life? Well, this may come as a surprise to you, but it transpires that going shopping provides an opportunity to ogle members of the opposite sex. All except the most miserly, miserable and misanthropic consumers – do they mean me? -- get something out of shopping, even if it’s only a titillating glimpse of an attractive, semi-clad stranger.

Another thing I can’t help noticing is the amount of beautiful females walking around town. This is probably the greatest pleasure which I gain from my shopping experience, and it usually fills most of my conversation – and which I shall not go into for obvious reasons of common decency.
(male, 22)

People keep saying that good customer service makes them always want to go back to certain stores. Friendly staff, after sales service and credit being several of the many attributes which make up this phenomenon. I don’t know about anybody else but these factors don’t really appeal to me when I choose which store to go into. It is not friendly staff I look for, it is nice-looking, young, tanned female staff, staff with long legs, nice eyes cute behinds and big, big, big pairs of …earrings! Finding staff in shops like this are like hen’s teeth, but when I find one or two who match some of the criteria set, you can bet your last pound that I will visit these certain shops more than once, not to buy something every time, just mainly to look at the merchandise, some for sale and, unfortunately, some not for sale.
(male, 21)

Although men are more inclined to check out the checkout girls, as it were – or, rather, are more prepared to confess to it – women are no less aware of the amorousness of the agora. So much so, that shopping for merchandise and shopping for men are often one and the same. Certainly, many women seem to take the opportunity to get dressed up, or try to look their best, when consumption calls, just in case they meet the man of their dreams, even if it is only a cardboard cut-out.

There were a number of people in the shop and as I turned the corner of a stand I bumped into what can only be described as sex on legs. Woah, what a body and those eyes. I stepped aside to let him past and of course he went the same way. Taking an absolute redner, I muttered a quick sorry and brushed past him. Shit, shit, shit, I thought as I clutched my burning face. Why does that always happen to me? I managed to take a glance around only to see my Mr. Right leaving the shop hand-in-hand with what must have been his girlfriend. Ah well, you can but dream.
(female, 20)

As I caught a glimpse of a 4ft x 8ft graphic, I never knew the effect a piece of laminated cardboard could do to a girl’s hormones, or rather the vision superimposed on it. He was a Sex God. A stunning build of a man, longish brown/fair hair loosely swept back off his chiselled cheekbones, piercing blue eyes, lips so smooth and voluptuous, all set against a canvas of lightly tanned skin. Pity he wasn’t for sale. I’d have sold my granny for him. He wore a white round-neck cotton T-shirt under a ribbed V-neck sweater. It was navy with a broad lime and white stripe across the chest, and the trousers, a pair of navy and cream pinstripe. I had to have it, to try to mould my boyfriend into what I had just realised was my ideal man.
(female, 20)

There is more to the carnality of consumption, however, than look-don’t-touch. On the contrary, shopping is a social event where conversations are struck up, chat-up lines are aired, assignations are negotiated, conquests are reconnoitred or claimed, on occasion. Such boasts, of course, comprise little more than crude, post-adolescent sexual braggadocio – not that I’m jealous or anything – though it is clear that many consumers respond positively, shall we say, to physically attractive shop assistants, irrespective of gender.

Joining the stampede into the new store, one hand takes a store-plan leaflet while the other grabs for a shopping basket. Once on the sales floor, I’m asked by a pretty, oh what the hell I’ll say it, sexy babe who wants me to sign up for the store’s Reward Card. What a pleasure! I’m almost tempted to ask her out there and then, but decide to play it cool, trying out the best of my favourite chat-up lines. Believe me, they were so good that I ended up chatting to her long after she’d obtained my details and, just in case you’re interested, yes I did get her phone number!
(male, 21)

Several of our introspectors, moreover, openly acknowledge that they lose their powers of discrimination when dealing with an alluring sales clerk and freely admit that they not only patronise certain retail establishments because of the winsomeness, to put it politely, of its employees. What’s more, they (rightly) suspect that this is a deliberate ‘merchandising’ ploy on the part of astute retail organisations, most notably River Island, Top Shop and Next.

My eyes wander everywhere when I shop and I tend to want to go into every shop to look around, listen to the music, try on times and the odd occasion goggle at the staff, who are always dressed to my perfect specifications. Nice looks and a smile can make me buy anything, I’ve been told by a certain mother.
(male, 21)

A quick thought crossed my mind. Did Next have an unwritten requirement when selecting staff that you had to rank at least 8/10 on the orgasmic scale? He was gorgeous. ‘Hi there, I was just wondering if you had any of those jumpers left, up there on the wall?,’ I asked slightly flirtatiously. Only too pleased to be of assistance, he escorted me to where they been merchandised.
(female, 20)

In addition to the sheer eroticism of exchange, where the babe or hunk of one’s wildest sexual fantasies may suddenly materialise and make their intentions known, it seems that the goods and services purchased, and the brand names displayed on our bodily billboards, act as a bridge to a sexier self. When wearing that little black dress, Levi’s 501s, Benetton jumper, Ralph Lauren polo-shirt, Gucci loafers or Safari eau de cologne we become more beautiful, more desirable, more captivating to members of the opposite sex, at least in the disco inferno of our febrile imaginations.

I wake up and decide, ‘I have to go shopping!’ The Christmas dinner is next week and I don’t have a sexy number in my wardrobe (even though there are about 20 dresses, some of which I have only worn once). I have a goal in mind – to get a dress which makes me look as good as Cindy Crawford. Tough goal but here goes!
(female, 21)

Presently I am wearing Dunnes Stores underwear, but I know if my financial situation was reversed I would not hesitate to pop out to the shops and slip on a pair of Calvin Klein undies, feeling like James Dean, and that would give the girlfriend something to smile about.
(male, 21)

Just one more item to get now, shoes. I may as well try here, I’ve done pretty well so far. There’s two pairs of cream shoes, one pair of high ones and one pair of low ones. Yeah the high ones have about a three-inch heel and I’m 5ft 6 in. already. Ahh well, I’ll look like I have legs up to my armpits.
(female, 20)

More meaningful perhaps than the transformative character of consumer goods -- the (visitor’s) passport they seemingly provide to an ideal self -- the wares themselves possess sex appeal.6 Again and again and again our essayists employ libidinous language to describe the object of their consuming passion, their heart’s desire. Potential acquisitions are unfailingly described as ‘beautiful’, ‘gorgeous’, ‘stunning’, ‘ravishing’, ‘lovely’, ‘pretty’, ‘attractive’, ‘alluring’ and so on. Falling head over heels in love with something, be it a computer game or bar of chocolate, is the norm rather than the exception; items are imbued with hypnotic-cum-magnetic power or are bathed in numinous buy-me light, or literally shout out for the customer’s attention.

I felt like the sandals were screaming ‘buy me, buy me’. The assistant knew how delighted I was and handed the sandals to me.
(female, 20)

I had not ruled on my final judgement, so knowing the owner of the shop I was permitted to take it home for a night…With a ripple of excitement in my heart, deep down I knew I was falling in love with the suit.
(male, 22)

Next we went into Next, a shop which I have a passion for. After walking into the store I feel somewhat important and imagine myself buying all my clothes there when I finally graduate and get a good job. We walked around gazing at the clothes and of course the dreaded price labels. A jumper caught my eye and it was absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, and my friend agreed.
(female, 22)

A sick and sorry bunch, I hear you say, and who am I to disagree? I mean, falling hopelessly in love with a Ferrari is one thing, getting hot to trot about a tube of Smarties is quite another. However, if we take these true confessions at face value, then it’s clear that consumer concupiscence operates at several different levels. It is directed toward shopping in general (love to shop), specific retail stores (River Island is a particular favourite) and all manner of individual products from T-shirts to teapots. The essential point, as far as I can make out, is that utilitarian considerations are utterly irrelevant in many cases. If anything, the student introspectors espouse a ‘love at first sight’ credo of consumption. Purchases are expected to ‘catch the eye’, to stop shoppers in their tracks, to whet their appetites, to arouse a tumescent response. True, people often don’t know what they want – love is indescribable, after all - but they know it when they see it, even if it isn’t what they set out to buy. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to state that some of these episodes of overwhelming consuming passion border on the orgasmic. Fake orgasmic possibly – did the earth move for you, or the Lands’ End catalogue at least? - but orgasmic all the same.

Then I saw it. In that split second everything else in the world seemed to go out of focus. All I could see was that dress. Before I knew what was happening, I had unconsciously walked towards it. It was as if it contained a magnet. It was a rich chocolate brown colour with a luxurious velvet texture. I just knew that it would be perfect on. My heart stopped as I frantically scrambled inside for the price tag. It was meant for me.
(female, 20)

Dutifully, I browsed around to the clothes section and then my ‘sensible’ head started to grow weak as the most amazing jacket drew me like a magnet, like a fish to bait. My hands were trembling and knees weak as I made my way over to the object of my desire. It was mine! I had to have it! How did shopping for a birthday present eventually lead to this paralysing moment? It was versatile and could be co-ordinated with almost anything. Oh yes, I want it and God help anyone who stands in my way! Yes! I took deep breaths to conquer hyper-ventilating and quickly searched for my size. They better have it! A size 10 red jacket soon replaced the worn-out black one on my back. My heart pounding (why did shopping always have this ridiculous effect on me), I whisked the jacket to the counter and just like that, all in a turn of a card, my shopping trip was complete.
(female, 21)

The minute that I walked into that shop I was lost. I wandered around the shop in a daze, just glancing at everything because I knew that I couldn’t afford to do anything else. Then I saw it. I walked over to it in a dream-like fashion, scared stiff of seeing it up close. My legs were like jelly as I approached it. Somewhere along the journey Rosaleen had joined me. ‘It’s fabulous, just perfect for you,’ she gushed. As I stretched out my hand to hold the dress I thought I would faint. It was the most perfect dress in the whole world. It was scarlet red, the perfect colour for Christmas. It had stain straps, a velvet bodice and then fell to the ground in layers of satin. It was even the right length. ‘I have to try it on,’ I whispered to Rosaleen. The next few minutes passed in a haze. The dress was perfect, but I couldn’t get it, could I? I had already looked at the price tag on it. My mind started to work overtime, I knew that I couldn’t let an opportunity like this pass me by. I would regret it for the rest of my life.
(female, 20)

Hmmm, I suspect that many of the closet voluptuaries amongst you may have come to the conclusion that, fraught though it often is, going shopping isn’t as bad as I’ve been making it out to be. There’s an up-side to consumer behaviour, as it were, and for all the above mentioned problems with temperamental tills, traumatised trolleys and tyrannical toddlers (with their bug-me buggies), consumption has its sensuous compensations. This is true. I can’t deny it. But don’t set off for the shopping mall too soon. Premature evacuation of the present text is not advised, because I have a bucket of cold quotations to hand that’ll douse your acquisitional ardour. You see, there is a down side to sex and shopping as well.

Wonderful though many consuming encounters undoubtedly are – large, mixed-sex crowds of people in close proximity have inherent erotic potential – going shopping can and often does prove deeply unsatisfying. For every windfall from the ugly tree, whose very Elephant Man-esque presence boosts one’s self-esteem, there are several people much better looking, much better dressed and much better financially, physically or matrimonially off than ourselves. These beautiful people can be and are belittled, especially if they are ‘mere’ shop assistants, but they still make everyone else feel a fat, frumpy failure by frightful comparison.

We head on up towards Corn Market and into Propaganda, a shop which I am not terribly fond of. This is due to the fact that everyone who works here is kitted out, head to foot, in about £700 worth of designer gear. For some reason, when I am in their presence, I come over all inferior. I am not alone in this feeling, as I have conferred with my friends on this matter, who I also find experience ‘Propaganda paranoia’.
(male, 22)

Unfortunately, in order to go to the next place which is called Acme it is necessary to walk through the centre of town which involves passing, or in my case ‘attempting’ to pass other shops. We go into French Connection, just to see what we can’t afford and walk out wondering if their newspaper advertisement for a shop assistant read, ‘must be of Cosmo-model appearance, standard of education negotiable’.
(female, 22)

As soon as you walk through the doors, the waft of perfumes and aftershaves hits you up the face. Right, to the testers. Behind the counter, all I can see is these girls with make-up and hair done to perfection. I hate them. Maybe I just jealous. I reach out to lift one of the testers and I hear a voice, ‘Can I help you?’ I abruptly answer, ‘No thank you!’ I hate that question, it really annoys me.
(female, 22)

The fact of the matter is that when we gaze into the mirror of consumption, as we often do, it unfailingly informs us that we are not the fairest of them all. And, it’s trying to be polite, take it from me. The act of going shopping forces us to accept that we are fat, we are ugly, we are too tall, we are too small, we are a strange shape and out of it, for good measure. Warts, wrinkles, bunions, spare tyres, sweaty feet, smelly armpits, yellow teeth, pot bellies, long backs, short legs, heavy thighs, big bums, crooked noses, knock knees, wayward hair, chronic acne, sticky-out ears, varicose veins and bizarre bulges are omnipresent. (But apart from all that, I cut a pretty impressive figure!)

‘Blessed’ with a tall, well-proportioned, size 14 figure, I am in that (un)enviable position of being considered outsized in ‘normal’ shops and only a little girl in outlets catering for the fuller figure…Shopping for clothes can be a very traumatic experience, especially if it coincides with a semi-depressed state. On occasion I have been known to sink to the floor in despair (restrictive garments allowing) wailing, ‘I’m fat, I’m ugly, no-one loves me.’ And all because the lady cannot fit into a garment that should really belong in the children’s department. So I have come to two conclusions, either I am totally obese, the largest woman in the universe, and a completely different shape to boot, or someone, somewhere is waging a war against females who still practice that age-old ritual, known as eating.
(female, 20)

In Bendalls shoe department, I am sitting with an array of brown footwear in front of me. Time now to do the dirty deed on the world, the removal of my shoes after walking all day (shit, it’s worse than I thought it would be) but an excellent purchase is made without damaging the ozone layer too much. Mum informs me that we are going to buy some make-up from the Clarins stand in front of us. These counters always make me feel like a dog’s dinner, the assistants stand there like mannequins after spending an hour in front of the mirror every morning.
(female, 26)

As we have seen, the cockpit of these cruel encounters with the ‘ugly bloke’ within is the changing cubicle, where harsh lighting, trick mirrors and inconvenient chinks in the curtains contrive to condemn all but the most egomaniacal to profound paroxysms of self-loathing. Worse still, for women at least, is the communal variant of the changing room, which exposes their rolls of fat, unsightly cellulite and laddered tights to the adjacent supermodel, the entire shop, the whole world, all of whom are watching and won’t stop giggling.

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.
(male, 22)

I selected my size and joined the long, winding queue that I presumed was snaking its way into the changing rooms. OH NO!, it was communal and I was wearing threadbare underwear and I hadn’t shaved my legs. I had got this far, however, and I wasn’t turning back now. I was sandwiched between a sylph-like blonde in silver hot-pants and a portly woman who smelt of something nasty.
(female, 22)

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 the 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 sanity, 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 would take you anywhere’ it will suddenly hit me that it is not actually me but instead it is that supermodel 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.
(female, 22)

For men, meanwhile, there is nothing but nothing more mortifying than standing outside the female changing area – unfailingly situated in the lingerie section – while their partners wrestle and ruminate inside.

I was left standing outside changing rooms by myself and strange women in their bare feet would come out from behind the curtains and look at me as if I was some sort of pervert. I thought I was the only person who would feel like this, but I met another man abandoned outside the changing cubicles and he had the same feelings as myself.
(male, 22)

I personally detest women’s clothes shops, because Aideen sweeps through the store lifting items left, right and centre, then over to the changing rooms. ‘You stay there, I will be out in a moment.’ Now you’re left standing outside the women’s changing rooms, with women looking at you, as if to say, what’s he doing here? You feel a complete berk, especially if she doesn’t appear every now and again to reassure you.
(male, 22)

Sorry, I forgot, there is something worse than the knicker patrol but only for the hopelessly homophobic. Shut that changing room door!

Suddenly, from the back of the collection point, two new assistants appeared. Well, my God, I’m not homophobic or anything, but these two were as queer as a bottle of chips and a six pound note rolled into one. Roderick and Miles were their names. FUCK! They looked like something out of a cabaret act or something! Something you would find in London’s Soho, billed under something like ‘Bongo-Boys’. However, in their bitchy way they settled the crowd down and actually got the right items to the right people…Roderick came over to me, not literally, to ask my name, to enquire about my order and how long I was waiting.

‘Excuse me, sir, would you tell me your name and how long you’ve been waiting?’

‘McDaid and about 45 minutes,’ I said in an uncomfortable and sarcastic manner.

‘Oh, Oh!, that’s not good enough. We’ll have to hurry your order through.’

By this stage I was convinced of his sexual tendencies. The tipped blonde hair was the final straw. Arsebandit. I could hear him barking orders over the phone, round the back. Well, more purring the orders in his feminine way. Fruitcake. Miles turned and barked at Roderick which caused a bit of friction between them. Roderick then turned and apologised to Miles but Miles totally ignored him. Roderick was denied!
(male, 21)

Above and beyond putting one’s pale, pustular and podgy physique on painful display, or indulging in unfailingly unflattering corporeal comparisons with countless svelte surrounding sexpots, it seems that consumer goods themselves can castrate, frustrate or emasculate the shopping experience. Just as they serve as symbolic stepping stones to a more alluring self, so too they draw disagreeable attention to the less beguiling side of ourselves. Clothes that don’t fit, or are incorrectly sized, or incompatible with our colouring, or exaggerate our imperfections, or are just ‘not me’, are constantly encountered, to the abyssal misery of the consumers concerned.

Before I knew it I was once again in the fitting room. Several dresses later I came to the conclusion that a tub of Slimfast would be a much wiser purchase as I did not possess the traditional hour-glass figure so essential for the fashion design of the moment.
(female, 22)

After walking around the store about five times, ensuring I didn’t miss anything, nothing grabbed my attention. Feeling very depressed, I left the store with good intentions to start a diet in the morning so as to fit into the clothes most shops had to offer.
(female, 22)

I get into the queue for the changing room. Armed with the dress of my dreams. I find a cubicle, quickly undress myself and put on the dress. It is too tight. I can’t believe that I have put on so much weight! Feeling really embarrassed and annoyed with myself I take the dress off again. As I am taking it off and hanging it up again I notice that the dress is actually a size 8, which had been placed on a size 10 hanger by mistake.
(female, 21)

Tempting as it is to tell our essayists to pull themselves together – misconstrued though that might be – it is clear from the introspective accounts that consumer carnality cuts both ways. The shopping environment undoubtedly provides ample fodder for concocting romantic or erotic fantasies (e.g. travel brochures as a magic textual carpet to exotic sexual adventures in foreign climes; when I wear this dress I’ll look drop-dead gorgeous; if I buy my girlfriend this CD player will she reward me with a kiss, or two, or more?). However, it can also inflame disagreeable or indeed nightmare scenarios, from being made to feel cheap under the baleful male gaze to fears of frenzied sexual assault in shopping centre car parks.

As I turned to cross the floor to the other side of the shop I was immediately confronted by a pure white table, vibrant in its contrast with the mellow mood of the dark green shop. Upon it was a pyramid-shaped display of olde-worlde glass bottle, reflecting layers of light from the toned-down lighting of the shop, which enhanced the pure essence-like impression of the perfumes they contained. Sampling several, which ranged from the most sickening sweetness of lavender to the enriched poignancy of wild musk, it suddenly struck me that this was the essential element that was missing from my seductress tactics. Finally dragging myself away from the inspired images of myself walking along a beach at sunset with deep reddish-brown shades of silk flowing with my movements – I ended up at the aromatheraphy section. Alternatively inhaling calming and stimulating herbal scents, my equilibrium was re-established.
(female, 22)

The car park reminded me of one of those American movies where a woman is approaching her car after a late night at work and is attacked by a psycho rapist. I got a shiver thinking how scary it would be to walk through it by myself late at night.
(female, 21)

Likewise, the anthropomorphisation effect that is apparent at the yes-yes-yes end of the consuming spectrum is equally apparent at the not-tonight-dear-I’ve-got-a-headache end of the sex ’n’ shopping scale. Stores are suspected of deliberately withholding their favours, or attempting to break off long and happy relationships, and desperately desired products successfully secrete themselves from view or pretend to be washing their hair that night. Similarly, the cliched ‘chat-up’ lines of sales assistants are regarded as the equivalent of ‘do you come here often?’, ‘what’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?’ or ‘if I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me?’. Well, would you?

The manager came over and explained the situation and kept apologising, there was nothing he could do…I couldn’t believe the way this worked out. I always thought Topshop was a reliable friend. But I have since forgiven them and continue to shop there.
(male, 22)

Our ‘tour of duty’ continues and while passing River Island I spot pinstriped trousers I have been hunting for what has seemed eternity. The race starts, into the shop, up the stairs (trying to avoid any manslaughter charges from killing someone if I lose them) find the railing, my size – where’s my size?! Has some psychopath been one step ahead of me, intent of trying to drive me mad? Before I tear my hair out I need to compose myself and as politely as possible, considering my frame of mind, ask for assistance.
(male, 22)

While browsing in every store, I always hear an assistant approaching me. I think to myself, super, smashing, great, time to play the interested consumer. ‘Can I help you?’, they always ask. This statement gives me the shits. I wish someone would devise a new way for assistants to ask if they could help me. They are most likely thinking the same thing about me because of my answer, ‘No, I am only looking.’ Just as they are about to leave me I will go, ‘Ah, do you see this boot, do you have it in a nine?’ I have no intention of buying boots, I just love wasting their time because, after all, that is what they are there for. I try the boots on, walk around in them and then go back to the assistant, smile and say, ‘Thank you, I will be back later.’
(male, 21)

Most significantly perhaps, the orgasmic ecstasy of finding the perfect product or gift is counterpointed by the agonising frustration, the heart-rending, tear-shedding, teeth-grinding, carpet-chewing, cold-showering, cat-kicking torment of failure.

Sinking my feet into the deep pile carpet I felt soothed by the gentle music. I walked to the ladieswear department and there it was, the dress of all dresses! A warm chiffon creation with layer upon layer of quality textile, flowing from a fitted satin bodice, soft to the touch and pleasing to the eye. Feeling euphoric, I sprinted to the first assistant that I could find and asked her to fetch my size. She apologetically informed me that ‘them dresses are out of stock, love’. Gutted, I reluctantly returned the dress to its rail and meandered down the escalator to the Food Hall.
(female, 22)

After waiting patiently to cross at the traffic lights, I almost sprinted over and hailed the shop with adoration. Passing the fully glassed window that contained what looked like hundreds of shoes, my eyes for once could not see enough. I was almost pushing other so-called shoppers out of the way to determine whether or not the display contained the one and only thing I wanted. And there they were, gorgeously standing on a tall, almost regal platform, a pair of sleek, well cut, long, knee-length boots! My heart jumped, my stomach leapt and my eyes almost doubled in size. I bounced forward, almost knocking down a customer deeply engrossed in pair of shoes. When I reached my desired destination, I ran my hands up and down their tailored physique. I lifted them gently off the platform, eased the zip down, slid off my sandal and sock, and placed my foot into my dream boot. They looked fabulous. I slowly began zipping them up, but alas they stopped just above my ankle. The fat (or as I prefer to call it – large calves) was destroying and obviating my chances of success. It was looking at me almost saying ‘you haven’t a hope in hell of getting this zip past me love’…I attempted to pull up the zips on a number of different styles, but it was useless. I seriously wanted to take a bacon slicer to my legs and cut half of it away. So again I left the shop empty-handed.
(female, 21)

What’s more, the sheer torture of not getting what one’s looking for – ill-defined though the intention often is – is reinforced by the evident success of surrounding shoppers, whose pregnant carrier bags are not only indicative of sated consuming passions but concrete proof, as it were, that they have the wherewithal to acquire what our penurious essayists are denied.

I left the shop and slowly walked up to the front of Castlecourt, ready to leave. My feet were trailing behind me. I had lost the spring in my step. I could see everyone coming into Castlecourt with bags upon bags of shopping and there was I carrying nothing but the bag I left with.
(female, 20)

I eventually get to try the outfit on. It’s lovely but I have to think realistically. I can’t afford it. However tempting it may be I must put it back and get on with my real mission of the day, Christmas shopping. Depressed, I walk out of the store…I spend ages walking around Castlecourt dandering in and out of all the shops looking at all the very tempting merchandise. The temptation in Bay Trading and Dolcis is almost too much for me to handle. There were so many nice things. Christmas is a really colourful time of year and a happy time too, if you have loads of money.
(female, 21)

In these circumstances, some retailing inadequates, some sad gits of shopping, some cuckolds of consuming, some mackintosh wearers of marketing descend to petty acts of jealousy, hostility, spite, possessiveness and revenge. All of the negative emotions associated with human sexual relations are thus disported on the chaise longue of consumption.

A depressing problem that I have developed as an impulsive shopper is that I always buy items that lie well outside my income bracket. However, this does not deter the purchase, otherwise my shopping day would be ultimately destroyed, knowing that I could have had it but now someone else will have an even better day than me.
(male, 21)

I went to get a seat. As I was waiting all I could think was how jealous my friend would be, because she has also admired them but only after I spied them first.
(female, 20)

As I stepped into the shop I felt all the familiar symptoms take a grip of me. I felt so panicky, there was so much to look at. My eyes darted everywhere as I tried to take everything in, all at once. I was petrified in case in the split second that it took me to scan the shop that I would have missed my dream dress and that someone else would have bought it. My heart sunk and leapt with exhilaration all at once.
(female, 20)

On my way to Laser I kept replaying the situation in Currys over and over in my mind. I would normally relate to that sort of staff attitude to shoe shops and definitely did not expect to get harassed while shopping for a video recorder. As I was reaching Laser I was determined to buy a video from them to avoid having to go back to Currys. If they were going to treat me so badly then this is how I would punish them.
(female, 21)

So you see, mes onanistes, shopping isn’t as sexy as you thought. Although many academic authorities have alluded to the supposed connection between sex and shopping, the unstated assumption is that the experience is entirely pleasurable, that the joy of sex and the joy of shopping are somehow congruent or homologous. However, the sad fact is that shopping, like sex, is often far from satisfactory. Not only is shopping physically frustrating, insofar as bodily imperfections are exposed to the harsh light of changing rooms and unbecoming inter-consumer comparisons, but it is metaphorically frustrating on account of the unrequited love for must-have-can’t-have merchandise. Anguish, bitterness, betrayal, pain, remorse, regret, despair – the symptoms of heartache, in short – are on agonising display in the lonely hearts column of consumption.

Rather than end this chapter on a negative note, however, it may be preferable to point out that if you subscribe to the ‘shopping is like sex simile’, then it is impossible not to be struck by the striking parallels between the purchasing and procreative behaviours of men and women, essentialism notwithstanding. Men, to put it crudely, adopt a ‘wham bam thank you mam’ approach to shopping. They know what they want; they expect to get it; they don’t mess around; they are in and out as quickly as possible, if you’ll pardon the expression; and they rapidly work their way through one consumer conquest after another.

Women, on the other hand, engage in an impossible, all-consuming search for the retailing equivalent of Mr. Right. This involves carefully examining what’s on offer before settling on their preferred choice, the least worst option. Women, admittedly, are prone to occasional wild, reckless, impulsive, impassioned flings with simply irresistible products that make them go weak at the knees (and which may never be unwrapped or worn). Similarly, men’s love ’em and leave ’em approach is more manifest in the breach than the observance, especially when ‘shopping’ is conveniently redefined as ‘work’ (books), as ‘leisure’ (CDs), as a ‘hobby’ (computer games) or – try not to laugh - an ‘investment’ (stamp collecting). Yet, on the basis of the introspective accounts, there do appear to be broad gender-related differences in the shopping act and, indeed, differences in their attitude toward each others’ expertise, or lack thereof. As far as men are concerned, women take far too long. As far as women are concerned, men don’t take enough time to do it properly.

Well, I’ve taken far too long, for once in my life, so I suppose I’d better stop there and have a cigarette. A Clintonesque cigar is perhaps too much to hope for. Anyone got a light?