8: Will the Real Hyperreal Please Stand Up?
Having transported you to the heights of textacy – though I reckon you were faking it on p.96 – it’s time to slow things down a little, to wax lyrical, so to speak, and to indulge in some postmodern pillow-talk. Post-coital cerebration, we call it in the trade. Indeed, since it is almost impossible to surpass the sublimity of sex ’n’ shopping, there’s nothing left for us to discuss but sublimity itself.
Now the sublime, as you’ll doubtless recall from Aesthetics 101, is a sensation of almost overwhelming power, precipitated by encounters with something above and beyond the everyday (great art, supreme sporting achievement, a vertiginous drop, the universe in all its unfathomable infinity). An unnerving admixture of profound anxiety and unqualified admiration, the sublime is one of those monumental concepts that renders everyone dumbstruck, philosophers sadly excepted. Just as Descartes’ in-bred descendants fight duels over dualism, so too they grapple heroically -- at the edge of an intellectual chasm, naturally – with the sublime. The result of this wrestle, suffice it to say, is characteristically inconclusive. Nevertheless, the concept is highly pertinent to our present pseudo-scholarly concerns
In a recent paper, one Arthur J. Kover has cogently expatiated on the relationship between consumption and the sublime.1 According to this lapsed sociologist and sometime marketing man, our postmodern world of panic, uncertainty, confusion, schizophrenia and ever-accelerating change represents a latter-day articulation of the sublime. More to the point, he contends that consumption represents an attempt to cope with this terrifying existential milieu. It is a way of keeping the sublime at bay, of navigating life’s turbulent waterway, a ‘structure of comfort’ which enables us to survive under the oppressive shadow of the infinite, the inexplicable, the inarticulate, the inchoate. Not every personal strategy of existential meaning making involves consumption, but many of them do. For Kover, the most important of these comprise escapism, via television, movies, gardening, theme parks etc, and confrontation, by means of extravagant expenditure, narcissistic body maintenance, sexual promiscuity and suchlike. Indeed, in its immediacy, unpredictability, incomprehensibility and boundlessness, the sublime is analogous to the sacred. As Kover notes, “the causes of sublime feelings, formless and without understandable purpose resemble the unimaginable power and purpose of a Judeo-Christian god unknowable to humans.”2
Ah, the sacred! Where would we be without the sacred? If there is one imperishable law of interpretive consumer research, it is that the sacred always miraculously materialises at some point in the proceedings. It’s been resurrected more times than Frank Sinatra, the Barthesian author and, naturally, the avatar-formerly-known-as-Yahweh. And here it is again, gatecrashing our postmodern party, biblical tract in hand, true-believer glint in its eye, rock ’n’ roll is devil’s music attitude and sermon on the tip of its twisted tongue. All together now, ‘There’s an old rugged consumer in a shopping mall far away...’
I suppose I better be careful what I say, since the sacred is hallowed ground as far as consumer researchers are concerned. Few constructs in recent years have attracted so much devotion, dedication, discussion and, frankly, deification. Apart from countless analyses of the influence of religiosity on consumer behaviour (e.g. the purchasing proclivities of Jews, WASPs, Mormons, Evangelical Protestants), consumption itself is purportedly imbued with a spiritual cast. Thus, the things once regarded as unalterably profane, unspeakably sinful, veritable one-way tickets to the gates of Gehenna – indulgence, extravagance, luxury, usury, hedonism, materialism, greed, covetousness, fashion consciousness and consumption in all its malign manifestations – are now deemed, if not quite next to Godliness, certainly within spitting distance of devotional.3
Shopping, in short, has become sanctified. Consumption is an act of consecration. St. Michael is the patron saint of patronage behaviour. Hallowed be thy brand name. So marked is this sacralisation trajectory that, for Russ Belk at least, the religious festivals of the 21st century are liable to comprise the Feast of the Seven-Eleven, Ronald McDonald’s Thanksgiving, St Johnny Walker Day, the Dr Pepper Pentecost, Armani Ascension, Hilton Hanukkah, Rolex Ramadan and many more besides. Incredible, yes, but don’t scoff too soon. Gucci, remember, moves in mysterious ways. And if Donna Karan’s conceptions aren’t immaculate, I don’t know whose are.
Although the spiritual side of shopping, not to mention those cathedrals of consumption colloquially known as shopping malls, has attracted a considerable amount of academic attention, perhaps the fullest expression of this perspective has recently been articulated by that tireless (not to say tiresome) shopping anthropologist, professor of prolixity, if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-a-new-book-by, Dannny Boy Miller. According to his modestly titled text, A Theory of Shopping, he argues that routine grocery shopping behaviour is a kind of quasi-religious ritual, an form of familial and societal devotion – an act of unreciprocated love, no less -- far removed from the base utilitarianism of economistic caprice. In an increasingly secular world, the romantic ideal of love serves as a substitute for religious observance. Passion has replaced piety, or rather compassion has replaced piety, since this romanticised religiosity is made manifest in everyday exhibitions of concern, care, sensitivity and dedication to the needs of others.
Miller maintains, in fact, that shopping is akin to sacrifice, in so far as it is performed primarily to influence other people’s behaviour. Just as gods are petitioned to perform certain acts in return for votive offerings, so too the shopping ritual is performed to persuade people -- those to whom the shopper is devoted – to behave in a certain manner, to prove worthy of the attentive treatment, to become deserving of what is being done for them. In short, to become better people (“eat up your greens,” “you’ll look good in this,” “What about that weekend break in Paris?”).
To be sure, Miller’s cosmological conception of consumption is indubitably on the wild and woolly side, albeit openly acknowledges that some might consider it “sanctimonious crap”. And who are we to argue? It is equally true to say that his and Kover’s (and copious other consumer researchers’) emphasis on the sacred side of shopping resonates with many of the views expressed in our introspective essays. The essayists frequently refer to what can reasonably be described as numinous aspects of shopping. For example:
There it was, almost as if a light from Heaven was shining on it, my lime green shirt. Sizing wasn’t a problem, they had everything. I immediately spotted a size 16 inch collar, this was what service was all about, meeting the demands of the consumer.
Then like a vision from Heaven I see it, hanging high on a rail. The glow from its warm colour engulfs me. I bound over to where the burnt orange suit is hanging and search like a madwoman for my size. Yes, it’s here. Happy dayz, I want to shout out loud. I hug the suit close to me, like a child with a teddy that someone is trying to take away
Such ecstatic consumption experiences, what is more, are not confined to the product-purchaser dyad, significant though that is. Broadly similar reactions are reported about individual retail stores, arresting window displays, vacant car parking spaces and promotional decals inscribed with those blessed words “sale”, “free” or “reduced” (assuredly the “hallelujah”, “hosanna” and “Jesus saves” of consumer society). However, it seems to me that the champions of the spiritual conceit – like the auto-eroticists of the priapic trope paraded in the previous chapter – tend to concentrate on the transcendent, the blissful, the euphoric side of the shopping encounter.
Then came the word of the Lord. A Godsend. An angel had landed and rescued me. Her mother turned to me and said, ‘I think me and you’ll go for a cup a’ tea an’ a smoke’. Yessss! Good woman. Just the job, and off we went.
Lifting it gently from the rail, scared that I would find a flaw in the material or discover that it wouldn’t fit, I was approached by an assistant who not only carried it into the changing area but brought the same suit in two different colours (was I dreaming?). Obviously not because, after trying on the suit and deciding that not only did it fit me perfectly but that green was the nicest colour on me and that it matched with the new shoes I was also about to purchase, the assistant took the garments from me and to the cashier desk. Was it my imagination or had this girl a halo around her head? I don’t know, but I followed her and paid for my purchases.
Yet, as we have seen, there is also an horrific, a hellish, a frustrating, an infernal, a simply satanic side of the shopping experience. For every manifestation of the Holy Spirit in Harrods or Hamleys, for every moment of extra-sensory bliss brought about by burying one’s head in a bucket of Ben and Jerry’s, there are encounters that only Mephistopheles himself and his mephitic marketing myrmidons could have concocted. Souls in torment? You misheard, folks. It’s solds in torment, believe me. Shopping is a penance, nothing more, nothing less. Despite appearances to the contrary, shopping centres are places of perdition, purgatory and profound, everlasting pain. Buy now, pay later is the bottomless pit of the late twentieth century.
Our journey continues and as we approach the last aisle an identical grin creeps across our faces – we’ve reached the Garden of Eden, the frozen food aisle. The check-outs are looming as we frantically load the trolley with fish fingers, pizzas, burgers, supermousses – in other words, food we can cook with no hassle. Forget Cordon Bleu, we are here at last. Stephen suddenly spots the Haagen Dazs and grabs two tubs (priced £3.49 each). A creeping voice of sensibility enters into my head, I look from the heaped trolley to my favourite ice-cream and hope we have enough money to pay for all this. I voice my concern to my brother who is already drooling at the thought of dipping a spoon into Belgian Double Chocolate. My concerns fall on deaf ears and he throws them in regardless
The interior of Castle Court had an almost heavenly air about it. Someone had obviously gone to great lengths to ensure that Christmas and all its festive trimmings would be more impressively displayed here than any other part of the city. Several thousand pounds and several million brain cells had obviously been injected into this project and the outcome was spectacular. It was a definite crowd puller. Mechanical Santas and reindeer invited the crowds to buy everything in sight. There was of course no hint of the real reason for Christmas. I suppose the baby Jesus isn’t very marketable.
Evil spirits, in effect, are abroad in the retailing environment, whether it be with regard to the aforementioned shopping trolley that suffers from demonic possession, or the poltergeists of the perambulator, or the puckish goods that prefer to hide themselves away (but only when you are specifically searching for them -- at all other times they are irritatingly ubiquitous), or, for that matter, the shamans of the shopping centre, who shake their cure-for-cancer collecting receptacles in the faces of credulous passers-by. Miracles R Us.
We eventually get our trolley and it seems to be quite co-operative. As soon as we enter the supermarket, the trolley begins to squeak and yes, you’ve guessed it, the wheels have minds of their own, oblivious and uninterested in what way I may wish to go. Oh no, we’ve hired the trolley from Hell! As we stand and plan our route of attack, I receive a sharp dig in the ankles from a trolley being badly navigated by a granny with a semi-satanic grin on her face. ‘Sorry’, she mutters, then off she shuffles...The next stop is the meat counter. As we go towards our destination, the trolley from Hell seems to have its own ideas and veers off in the direction of the cereal display. Just missing by inches, we gently persuade the trolley to come round to our way of thinking by giving it a good hard kick. I do not know if this treatment did the trolley any good but it sure made me feel better.
As I push my trolley of goods out the door to the car I am relieved that it is all over, although I still have to stop on the way home for some bread and also a bottle of mayonnaise, which won its game of hide-and-seek with me in the supermarket.
As always, the entrance to Castle Court shopping centre is carefully guarded by the demons of the rattling tin. As I tactfully avoid this request for money, probably for skateboards for the disabled or some worthless political organisation or even worse a student organisation, I do wonder how much of my money would have gone to the so-called needy anyway.
Then, of course, there’s the evil eye – the baleful stare – employed by sales clerks to inform us that we are not welcome in, or worthy of, the hallowed halls of their blessed retail establishment. And if that doesn’t work, they employ certain infallible spells and marketing mantras, such as “can I help you?” or “are you looking for anything in particular?”, that are guaranteed to exorcise the shopping spirit of even the most eager would-be purchaser. What’s more, retailers actually have the postmodern gall to appropriate the spirit of Christmas for their decidedly desanctified ends, only to turn that into a well-nigh purgatorial experience (or purgative at least). Eternity in the lake of fire seems like a bubble bath by comparison.
It was possibly due to early morning shopping, or even the lack of other customers, but once inside the shop all eyes and attention were directed towards us. I pondered with the thought as to what I had done wrong, was I smoking, or had I stepped in dog shit, which was leaving a trail on the carpet. But no, I was innocent and shrugged it off as paranoia. The garments, exquisitely laid out, beckoned to be handled but as soon as I lifted a pullover a balding middle-aged man (who looked to have a grudge against life) approached with the ever-so-predictable line, ‘Can I help you?’ Instantaneously, without having to think, and possibly before he had even finished speaking the reply was given, ‘No thanks, I’m just looking.’
We went into the shop and proceeded up the stairs to the ladies’ department. On the way up the stairs the sales assistants from the men’s department stared at us as if we had horns. When we got upstairs we had a quick look around the rest of the stock and at the price tags, which were quite dear. We could not find the outfit that was displayed in the downstairs window, so we asked one of the two sales assistants to show it to us. She took a long hard look at us, she looked us up and down and then went to get the skirt and jumper. By this stage I felt like I was the lowest class that could be found and that I was dressed as a tramp, which I was not actually.
Now I had a personal crusade to accomplish and God help the people who hold me back…outside I encountered one group of people whom I truly and wholeheartedly despise with every atom in my body. They will certainly ruin any chance of having a pleasant shopping experience. A guy was holding his arm aloft and preaching, no screaming, about how we had all lost the meaning of Christmas. I mean, how dare he tell me what to do and how to spend Christmas. If I want to squander my money and get drunk every night, it’s my God given right. I don’t come into town wearing a sandwich-board and shout my feelings and beliefs to the world, so why should he?
Noisome as the incubi and succubae of shopping undoubtedly are, there is one malefic occurrence that surpasses all other maleficences in the hellfire-singed, brimstone-besmirched, impale-my-nether-regions-upon-a-rusty-spike-until-the-end-of-time league. And that is not getting what one’s looking for (no matter how inarticulate or ill-formed the consuming impulse may be). In fact, it goes without saying that whenever merchandise is available, it always but always turns out to be the wrong colour, size, shade, fit, brand, model, specification, price or whatever. Fate intervenes to ensure that failure is ever-present, that dissatisfaction is guaranteed. Worse still, failure is agonisingly ever-present since the fit, colour, match or specification is almost but not quite right, every size is stocked except the one that is required, the very last item was sold only half-an-hour beforehand (and replenishment, naturally, will take several weeks), the goods are available in one’s local branch (which was earlier bypassed in favour of the “better choice” at the main outlet) and, when a purchase is eventually made, the exact same merchandise is sure to be spotted in another shop, at a substantially lower price. It is no exaggeration to state that when consumer expectations are raised, only to be dashed against the rocks of stockouts, the anguish thereby engendered is truly satanic, chthonic, diabolical.
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.
I had made it to the front of the queue and was facing an overly attractive girl who was about twenty or twenty-one years of age. The wait was worthwhile, I thought. I gave her the docket that I had carefully filled out and she proceeded to type the information into her little computer. Standing with £40 in my hand I prepared to pay for the product. The following conversation took place:
“I’m sorry sir, but there does not appear to be any of those products in stock at the present moment.”
“You’re kidding, aren’t you?”
“I’m afraid not, but we can order you the product from another branch but it may not be here for Christmas. It is a Christmas present, isn’t it?”
My initial thoughts of this girl being a goddess were ruined in a matter of seconds. This girl had suddenly turned from a romantically approachable angel into the wicked witch of the west. I followed the yellow brick road directly out of the store. The thought of nooses and razor blades clearly in my head.
The last straw is generally going into a shop, seeing something I want, and they don’t have it in the right size. Perhaps a well meaning shop assistant will say, ‘Our Ballymena branch also stocks these!! It is like a scene out of a horror film, I feel like screaming and instead I have to smile, say thank you, all the while thinking what a waste of time this has been.
Indeed, if there is an iron law of the marketplace, it is that whenever one is flush with funds or looking for something in particular, there is nothing to be found, whereas the most wonderful merchandise – the perfect item – always materialises at the most inopportune moment, when the pocketbook is empty or there are other more pressing pecuniary demands to be met. God, so it seems, continues to conspire against our consuming passions, even if the church has lost its way.
When I am looking for something specific, like an outfit for a wedding, I can be sure that even if I spend all day, and look around every clothing outfit, I will never find just the right outfit that I am looking for, or if I do, it will not be available in my size.
I wanted something new to wear, so I traipsed round every clothing shop I cold find, but I could not find anything I liked that I could afford. That is just typical as whenever I have no money, I see plenty of things that I would love to have and when I do have money to spend, I cannot find anything at all. If I do see something I like and it is within my price range, it is sure not to be available in my size. I must be the unluckiest person in the world.
It seems to me that every time I go shopping with a certain article in mind, I can never get what I am looking for, but when I have no money I see several things I like.
Well, no joy! I still hadn’t spent a penny. I always find this. When I have no money I see lots of things that I would love to purchase and can’t afford, and when I do intend to spend money nothing seems to appeal to me.
There are, as noted previously, many variations on this evil-spirited impulse: the shop assistants who are never around when you want one and can’t be shaken off when you don’t; the heavens that unfailingly open on the very day an umbrella is deemed unnecessary; the vehicular (and pedestrian) slow-coaches ahead when one is severely pressed for time; the tills that break down, or need a new till-roll, at the exact moment we get to them; the kinetics of the checkout queue which immediately accelerates after we have moved to a faster one, only to find that it too instantaneously grinds to a standstill; and consumers’ uncanny ability to predict that the rest of the day will prove disastrous or that things are just too good to last.
We ran to the door, only to be stopped by a crowd blocking the exit. As I push my way through the crowd, I realise the people are standing in for shelter because it is pouring with rain. Mum and I look at each other in dismay. Neither of us have an umbrella. Murphy’s Law. If we had one it probably would not have rained but because we did not have one, it rained.
The question I always ask myself when travelling, is why does my car repeatedly get caught behind either a tractor or a giant lorry that carries freight. I think a curse was put on me at birth so that any annoying vehicles would be placed in front of me just to annoy the head off me and put me in bad form. So of course, we’re constantly stuck behind because of the traffic curse and the gut feeling in my stomach was sending me signals that my temper was changing rapidly.
She comes back with three cream tops, one is too casual, the next is too glittery but the last one is spot-on, or so I think. As she hands it to me she pointed out that this is the last one in stock and the person who tried it on before me had left make-up all over it. SHIT. I thought something just had to go wrong and so it did.
A closely related phenomenon is what may be termed the ‘conspiracy theory of shopping’, the well-founded suspicion that shops don’t want to sell to us, that choice stock is only available at certain clandestine times known only to initiates, that there is an evil, world-wide plot concocted by a secret shopping society, the retailing Rosicrucians, the free-gift-masons, to deny us the merchandise we desperately desire. Where are the Mulder and Scully of marketing when you need them? I want to believe in bargains. The wares are out there.
Hurry up bimbo. I was quickly losing patience. ‘Sorry, just size 4’s and 6’s left’. For God’s sake! I saw and grabbed a similar pair in a last ditch attempt to keep my shop assistant while she was still in sight. “What about these?’ ‘Sorry, it’s just whatever’s on display’. God, I hate it when they say that. I’m sure she’s got them but just couldn’t be bothered to look for me.
Rows upon rows of carefully marketed objects tempted me to deviate from my original list but my resolution was not to be broken. Unfortunately I had not considered that the colour and size I wanted would not be available. Plan two. Due to the heavily depleted shelves I hoped (well I would have prayed but I’m not that way inclined) that secret stocks were being withheld in the dull, dank storerooms just waiting for me to come and get them…Eventually, after coming under the scrutiny of the resident security man, I attracted the attention of a sales assistant. Obviously coming to the end of her shift, the air of annoyance transcended the gap between us. Pretending not to have heard the exasperated sigh, I question her about the blue-striped shirt that I wanted to buy for my father. ‘Are there any in the back store?’ I suddenly realised that my fingers were crossed and hoped that the assistant with attitude, has not noticed. ‘Nah!’ This word reverberated from her gum, clod mouth, ‘all we have is what’s out on the shelves.’ As she called her departure to her presumed supervisor, utter disgust flowed through my veins. I felt like dragging her to the store and making her look; at least to humour me.
The story of my life at present is “sorry but”… “we ran out of stock yesterday”, “we don’t seem to stock your size sir.” But just why do they not have my size, or stock that particular item? Oh, but why?, tell me why? Is it not a simple request to have every item in every size, in every flavour, all of the time? And, when you finally make a decision “they” are all the time working and plotting against my choice. So one may ask, why decide at all? You know what they say about shopping; it’s the pastime of the masses, everyone partakes in it to a greater or lesser extent. Children buy, teenagers buy, mothers buy, fathers buy, young and old buy, everyone buys. But why can’t I?
It seems to me, then, that Kover has missed the point about the postmodern sublime. Consumption isn’t a latter-day comfort blanket that enables us to cope with the incomprehensible, unspeakable, unknowable awfulness of the universe, the infinite, the sublime. Consumption is the postmodern sublime. It is the incomprehensible, unspeakable, unknowable awfulness of consumption that has to be coped with today. We don’t lord it over the system of objects, we abase ourselves before it. Consumption is immanent; consumption is capricious; consumption is vengeful. We are as chaff beneath its feet. True, the prophets, shamans and quack medicine men of consumer society – marketers, advertisers, academics – may perform the requisite rituals (SWOT analyses, marketing plans), chant infallible incantations (4Ps, 7Ss) and generally mediate between the masses and the Messiah (it wasn’t Jesus who performed miracles in the marketplace, the marketplace performed miracles through Jesus). But, the fact of the matter is that consumption is beyond our ken, it defies explanation, it resists definition, it always defeats its academic exegetes.
If consumption is the contemporary sublime, as opposed to a mere comforter, then the question must be asked: how do we cope with its sheer immensity? When shopping is not a shock absorber between ourselves and the sublime, what if anything comes between us and it, in all its infinite Itness? The übermench of marketing, colloquially known as shopaholics, adopt a neo-Nietzschean stance by facing up to the cloven-footed brute in all its horned horror. They love to shop. They live to shop. They shop to die for. They buy, buy, and buy again. They brave the overwhelming odds of the January sales; they continue to fight the good fight when monetary munitions run low and credit card cartridges are spent; they are the standard bearers of store loyalty schemes and wear their plastic ribbons with pride; they march to the sound of the tills; they unhesitatingly espouse a strategy of Mutually Assured Consumption (that’s how we won the cold war, after all).
Sadly, the old contemptibles of consumption are few and far between. Most ordinary consumers lack the courage to look directly at the Marketing Medusa and risk being rendered stony broke or turned Lot-like into a mannequin (yes, just as you suspected, tailor’s dummies are indeed solidified shopaholics, cryogenised consumers, inflexible friends). The rest of us – the Perseuses of purchasing – require some sort of shield, a mirror, a means of protection from the going-shopping Gorgon. Such buying bullet-proofs, such anti-acquisitional armour-plating, such purchasing prophylactics, come in several styles ranging from couldn’t-care-less apathetics to hate-shopping aversives. However, most people cope with the shopping sublime by refusing to take it seriously. Above all else, the introspective essays are characterised by a quizzical, sceptical, cynical attitude. Their tone is overwhelmingly tongue-in-cheek. Sarcasm is the order of the day. In fact, several of the accounts are almost entirely facetious in ethos. Shopping? Oh, I love it! Queues? To die for, darling! Sales clerks? My favourite people, bar none! Changing rooms? Stop, please, my sides are splitting! Out of stock? Haven’t had so much fun since I caught my John Thomas in Brown Thomas’s revolving door, on the first day of the mid-season sale.
Now the adventure begins! The colours, the bright lights, the music, the happy faces of shop assistants and shoppers like myself. No, I don’t think so!
How I relish Christmas shopping. The sheer excitement of phoning my brother-in-law to embark on a mystical experience through the labyrinth of shopping precincts in Derry city fascinates me no end. Really. I hope the cynicism ends here!
‘Was the fitting broken when you got it home, sir?’ (No, I let the kids kick the crap out of it in an effort to break it, so that I could spend more time queuing here to talk to an idiot like you.) I explained that it was and now wished to have a fitting that’s in the required number of pieces.
When we arrive at the check-out our trolley is always bulging. To finish off our day in ‘style’ we have to queue for about ten minutes, if we are lucky, to be greeted by a really ‘pleasant’ assistant. Not! WE lift all the goods onto the conveyor belt; they’re scanned; and then WE pack them into the bags. Charming, isn’t it? I used to think that shop assistants were paid to do this. Obviously not!
Irony, to be sure, is the characteristic literary mode of postmodernity.4 Our fin de siecle, postmodern world has spawned countless encapsulatory epithets – fragmented, paradoxical, polysemous, prosthetic, viroid, juxtapositional, intertextual, hyperreal – but an ironic, parodic, profoundly cynical propensity is ever-present, whether it be in postmodern horror flicks like Scream and Scream Two (which foreground the classic horror movie schema -- and Schema 2, naturally), or postmodern advertising (which doesn’t try harder or just says maybe!), or the unremitting persiflage of Ur-postmodernist philosopher, Jean Baudrillard (‘What is being destroyed more quickly than the ozone layer is the subtle layer of irony that protects us from the radiation of stupidity.’).5
So marked is this ironic inclination among our introspectors that I am tempted to conclude that we are in the presence of post-shoppers. I kid you not. Post-shoppers, as everyone knows, are a mythical marketing phenomenon – the Xanadu of late twentieth-century consumer research – who have been alluded to on numerous occasions but never empirically demonstrated.6 Akin to the post-tourist, those who adopt a wry, knowing, detached attitude to the ‘touristy’, whilst revelling in its candy-flossed, kiss-me-quick hatted, wish-you-were-hered humiliations, post-shoppers are people who play at being consumers. Purportedly. So they say. In theory at least. However, the problem is that, like the lost tribes of pseudo anthropology and Indiana Jonesque archaeology, no-one actually knows what this ‘play’ consists of. Apart from being aware of, yet refusing to fall for, the sales ploys and mendacious merchandising whiles of marketing organisations, the practices, rituals and cosmology of this consumer sub-culture remain almost completely unknown, concealed as they are in the impenetrable immensity of the urban jungle.
Obviously, I don’t want to raise your hopes too much, since this clan of post-consumers could turn out to be fake, a virtual version of the post-shopper. As with the apocryphal ‘undiscovered’ aboriginals who come kitted out in Calvin Klein, shop at amazon.com and claim to be descended from Iron Bron Malinowski himself,7 Walt Disney may well have got there before us. We could very possibly be in the presence of ersatz post-shoppers, bogus post-shoppers or, surely not, post-post shoppers.
Indeed, if I may be permitted to digress for a moment, I have to confess that I sometimes wonder about this whole hyperreality business. That is to say, the much-recycled notion that hyper-real consumption sites are superior to everyday reality, since the negative side of authentic consumption experiences -- anti-tourist terrorism in Egypt, muggings in New York, dysentery in Delhi etc – magically disappear when such destinations are recreated in Las Vegas, Busch Gardens or Disneyland. Call me crazy, as many do, but it seems to me that the superiority of the fake is often based on an unwarranted stereotype of the real and the reality of the fake (the lines in EuroDisney, for example) may be much worse than anything the average visitor would actually experience in Egypt, New York, Delhi or wherever. Doubtless some enterprising hyperealtor is working on a theme park of a theme park, only without the lines, the screaming kids, the overpriced hamburgers and all round unpleasantness. Or, alternatively, with phoney lines, unspeakable animatronic children, overpriced holographic hamburgers and general ersatz unpleasantness, just to ensure visitors get a genuine sense of the ‘real’ theme park experience.
You know, I reckon the most horrendous hyper-real happening that could ever befall anyone is to be mugged in the New York-New York theme hotel in Las Vegas. By an Elvis Presley impersonator. Brandishing a fake weapon. Do you think he’d take an IOU?
Enough of these profound ontological observations. (Don’t you just love using the word ‘ontological?; it makes one feel part of the community of scholars, the ivory tower set, an imagined intellectual milieu of like-minded hermeneuts. Is there a class in this text?). If we tentatively accept that I really have tracked down the chimerical counterfeit consumer that goes by the name post-shopper -- I’m tempted to call them PS, for short, since they’re a kind of after- thought of consumer research -- then what are its distinguishing features?
Well, as previously noted, they ponder the sales ploys of shopping centres, retail stores and shop assistants. They meditate on the effects of musak, they cogitate on window and store displays; they ruminate on lighting, layout, flooring, finishes and atmospherics generally. They second-guess retailers’ merchandising and competitive strategies, evaluate staff training programmes, or lack thereof, and of course their acquaintance with store-related legal minutiae, such as The Sale of Goods Act, comes in handy when disputes break out, as they occasionally do, or when asking for discount.8
While waiting there, the relatively small size of the store became apparent to me, considering the huge variety of gifts which are available. Every nook and cranny was stuffed with every possible household and leisure item you could think of. The lights were pointed strategically to highlight certain areas of the store, creating what I imagined was a subliminal trail guiding customers past intricate displays trying to manoeuvre them in a zigzag pattern across the store. This exposes them to every possible inch of selling space all leading to the nucleus, the cash tills. After all, profit maximisation is the aim of Christmas these days.
Of course, Burger King was packed but the service was speedy and we managed to get a seat. The food was average and the company was great, and I did indeed find something gristly in one particular mouthful. This is usually a result of careless cookery but I remain convinced that that these bits are placed deliberately by McDonalds. They can be purchased at any respectable outlet by production of the secret hand signal and is thus used to sabotage the opposition’s food.
I load all my gear on to the cash desk. This is the bit that hurts the most. Paying. I point out to the cashier that the top is soiled and she says she’ll knock 2 off the price. No that ain’t good enough. I am a retail student after all. I gave her my ‘this garment is not of merchantable quality’ speech and managed to get a fiver off.
Clearly, some of this shop-consciousness is attributable to the fact that our sample is made up of undergraduate retailing students, who are more likely than most to cast a normative eye over purveyors’ positive shortcomings. Several, in fact, reflect on this very issue, wondering whether they would have noticed such matters prior to their studies. Others, by contrast, deny any special academically-inculcated acumen or insight into the malevolent machinations of merchant princes, particularly when parents, relatives, acquaintances and the like expect an exhibition of commercial expertise. That said, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that scepticism towards faux compliments like “looks wonderful on you”, not forgetting those consuming passion-killers “can I help you?” and “looking for anything in particular”, is fairly widespread.
Despite this, I’m being drawn to a gift display. Un-nervingly I decide to walk on and witness the poor state of this store. For a national retail chain they appear to have the worst regard for their store image; are their prices so low that they’re understaffed? If anyone was tempted to shoplift this would be the first place to do it. It’s obvious now that as a final-year Retailer that I’ve been reading too many of those retailing books. Perhaps I’ve come to expect better from such organisations.
My mum has this perception that because I am studying a retail degree I am interested in these big in-depth technical discussions about shops, shop design and the rest. Lucky she does not really know anything about the other modules I study or she would really do my head in!
Browse around for ideas for girls for Christmas, no one bothers me, in fact I have to physically go and look for a salesperson to ask for information on something. She hasn’t a clue, probably a Saturday girl. I feel sorry for her actually, no training given I imagine. She must lose Moore’s some sales through no fault of her own really. Cheap labour can end up very expensive in the long run. Family run business, been here for years, could do with training themselves maybe. God, I’m so critical now. I’ve just read over this and I’m sure if I wasn’t studying Retailing I wouldn’t notice half these things. I don’t think I noticed them before I took up the course.
Speaking personally, I’ve always felt that shop assistants get the rough end of the stick. I mean, they at least try to vary their approach – “Looking for anything in particular?”, “That’s nice.”, “See anything you like?”, “Have a good one” – whereas we always come up with the same old “Just looking” rejoinder. Can you imagine what it must be like to hear that a million times per day, every day? And then we go and complain when they shower us with false compliments or go for the add-on sale! I reckon it’s high time we had postmodern shop assistants. Are you looking for the “Are you looking for anything in particular?” cliché, sir? Do you see anything you like in our “See anything you like?” range of rhetorical retailing gambits? I have a special offer on “I have a special offer” showstoppers, madam. It’d be wonderful to tell you that you look wonderful in that, but you’re a misshapen bastard that’s beyond hope. Have a nice “Have a nice one”.
Jonathan really hates shopping, not the fact of spending money but trooping round the shops after me. He gets bored and moans and is not very helpful when I need advice…On the way out of the store we stopped in Fosters Menswear. I had felt guilty about trudging Jonathan around women’s shops and he didn’t even get time to look for anything. We had just walked in when I saw a nice navy and white checked shirt. Jonathan had spotted it at the same time. I told him to try it on but he said it would fit. When we got to the desk the sales assistant said ‘Well how did it look when you tried it on?’ We all had a good laugh as the girl said most fellows are the same. Seeing that we were in a good mood she tried to persuade us to buy socks which were on special offer. However, I was not going to fall for this add-on sale and politely said no. I don’t like being pressurised into making a decision, if I need help or advice I will ask for it.
A second component of the post-shopping propensity pertains to intertextual allusion. The introspective essays are literally full of references to other cultural modalities – films, television programmes, popular music, advertisements, novels, proverbs, soap operas, situation comedies, fairy stories, cartoons, theoretical constructs and many more. For example, the celebrated scene in Pretty Woman, where Julia Roberts is treated with disdain by haughty sales personnel, was referred to on numerous occasions, as were the not so wonderful wizard of Oz, the not so Wonderland of Alice, the not so profound epigrams of Forrest Gump, the not so bad-it’s-not-so-good television game show, Supermarket Sweep, and, not least, the not so not-speak of Wayne and Garth. Not!
The two shop assistants really aggravated me that day, they made me feel like I was not good enough to be in that shop never mind purchasing any outfit from it. It made me think of the scene in Pretty Woman, where Julia Roberts walks into a shop and they refuse her service, and when she finally gets the service she deserved in another store and goes back to the first shop all dressed up they are all over her like a bad rash and cannot wait to help her, and she refuses to let them help her and walks out of the shop. I could see myself going into that shop in several years when I had made my fortune and doing exactly the same a s Julia Roberts, not that I was dressed in the same way she was, and therefore I do not believe that I deserved to be treated the way I was.
Now the best words to describe this shop are Vorspung Durch Technik. Yeah, a huge open-plan shop with a big fuck-off TV screen. With my height (6.3 ft) some stores make me conscious of my height and make me feel like Alice in Wonderland as the room gets smaller and smaller, surrounding me and drowning me. Yet this doesn’t happen here. I believe that’s why I visit the store so often. It may also have something to do with the bombshells that work here too.
We got directions from a passer-by and headed for Castle Court shopping centre. We had been told that it would take fifteen minutes to get there but for some strange reason it only took us ten. The man had told us to ‘follow the green-topped building and it will lead you straight to it’. As we skipped down the road I had a distinctive feeling of ‘deja vu’. I wasn’t Dorothy and we weren’t following a yellow brick road but as long as our story had a happy ending too I didn’t care.
Similarly, the Yuletide setting of countless accounts called forth many Bah Humbuggery references to the season of peace, goodwill and glad-to-get-it-over-and-done-with tidings. All sorts of creative variations on “Nightmare on High Street” were concocted (unlike the equally common but less ‘writerly’ Mission Impossible). The Psycho shower-scene music was also recalled by several eek-eek-eek respondents. Carefully coiffured, cosmetically embalmed sales clerks sparked off chains of cultural, not to say sexist, association ranging from Barbie dolls and pornographic videos, to the ‘You know when you’ve been Tango’d’ strapline.
Footsteps creak along the winding stairs. In the distance a lone person sings in tune as the eerie background music grows stronger, building the momentum until the viewer is forced to hold their breath. Steam envelops the body standing in the shower, unaware of the danger. The door slides open, ever so quietly so as to not make known the intruder’s identity. The music reaches a crescendo just as the ominous figure grabs for the shower curtain. Stark reality hits the victim, as crashing down comes – wait for it!! – a Visa card!!! Now bolt upright, I realise, with sweat cascading from my brow, that I’ve just suffered my annually recurring nightmare. The thing is, it’s that time of the year again. For 360 days of the year I put it off until I can put it off no longer…The Christmas Shopping. (Is it my imagination or has Anthony Perkins just started waving a knife in my face, humming that synonymous tune!!!)
I walked up as far as Boots and went in. The sickly sweet scent of a plethora of perfumes, after-shaves, body lotions and bath oils filled my nose and made me feel a little nauseous. The Barbie doll look-a-like behind the counter saw my unease at being in such feminine surroundings and offered her assistance. She was truly beautiful and I would have bought any of her wares. Anyway, I bought a bottle of anti-wrinkle cream by Clinique. Perhaps not a very appropriate gift for an eighty-year-old granny, whose facial skin resembles my elbow, but she did say it was what she really wanted so it didn’t really matter.
Ten minutes passed before I got to the cash till. Here I was confronted with a 35 year-old ignorant bastard, who looked like something straight out of a Dutch porn movie. You can imagine the type: tall, foreign-looking, with a handlebar moustache and an American wrestler hairdo, short at the front and long at the back. Thankfully, however, I was passed on to the girl next to him, who was a bit of a sort. Blonde bimbo, every man’s dream, the one-night stand wonder, you know the type I mean? The type where the lights are on and nobody’s home? In a squeaky voice she asked for my order form and typed the information into the computer. At the fourth attempt she got it right. She then tried to charge me 5 too much. After the embarrassment of pointing out her mistake and redners all round, I moved on with the thought of jumping into her knickers, then I thought looking at the type of her, “You can’t take the knickers off a bare arse!”
Many of the essays, moreover, were anointed with what my be termed intertextual titles such as “The Lady in Red,” “To Shop or Not to Shop”, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”, “Impulse, First Impressions Last”, “Where did you get that Hat?”, “A Day to Remember”, “Supermarket Scream”, “Trainshopping”, “A Tale of Two Cities”, “There’s Plenty More Jeans in the Sea” and “That’ll do Nicely”. Songs, sayings and slogans seem to churn constantly round the minds of our compositionists – “he who hesitates”, “another one bites the dust”, “bat out of hell”, “it could be me” etc. – albeit some prefer to wax lyrical with poetic outpourings of their own. At least one lickspittle, likewise, encountered empirical evidence of the wheel of retailing theory (you need more than that to get a good grade from me, matey!)
Alarm, alarm. Shop, shop. No, no.
Yes, yes. Get up, get up.
Go, go. Bus, bus. Chatter, chatter.
Walk, walk. Spend, spend.
People, people. Cash, plastic.
Rush, rush. Home, home.
With Mr. Great Ass in store
well, then shopping’s no chore
and with good music and staff
then I really don’t mind the task
it’s just when there’s too many cars and not enough space
makes me want to scream and drive away from the place
Wonky trolleys that have a mind of their own
keep making me bash into people who glare at me and groan
being 3½ ft. some shelves are too high
but when asking for help all I get is a sigh
too many queues and not enough time
and horrible staff so thank-you I mime.
“And that’s all I’ve got to say about that” (Forrest Gump)
On my way to the car park in Fountain Street, I passed a curious contraption. Was it a strange but accurate interpretation of Professor McNair’s famous wheel of retailing, being displayed by two former enthusiastic students of Retail Distribution Management? Unfortunately not. It was a bizarre fairground attraction in which the unwary volunteer is spun upside down and around and around for several minutes in every direction at great velocity to the great amusement of the onlookers. After unstrapping the person, the usual reaction is to stumble and fumble about dazed and confused while feeling quite ill. In my opinion, everyone that day in Belfast city centre had taken a spin on this wheel and were still feeling the effects.
Alongside intertextuality and shop-consciousness, the introspective accounts are characterised by what may be termed reflexive reflections, a veritable vortex of self-scrutiny. As with the sexual scrutinisation observed earlier, this auto-absorption has both metaphorical and literal aspects. Metaphorical, in so far as several essayists cite and seek to subvert Stone’s celebrated shopping typology by contending that they can’t be categorised, or indulge in the “textual wink”, whereby the composer steps out of their composition, in effect, and addresses the reader directly.
One word could not describe the type of shopper that I am. I am not only compulsive but also impulsive, erratic and indecisive. I am a mixture of different types of shopper rolled into one.
Finally, we see Sainsbury’s but it’s on the other side of the carriage-way and of course we miss the turning for the entrance and have to drive for about a mile to the next roundabout to enable us to turn and come down on the other side of the carriage-way. But who cares, it was dark and no-one saw us. So, don’t tell anyone will you?
Carmel is always shopping. Okay, why wouldn’t you if you had a full-time job and can afford to splash out regularly? Jealous…who me? No way! Tears of pity, cries of poverty are always witnessed when Carmel suggests shopping for the umpteenth time.
More pertinent perhaps are the accounts of “literal” scrutiny. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to state that our consumers are consumed by the catoptrics of the gaze, the glance, the peek, the peer, the stare, the squint, the look. They look at others, they are looked at by others, they look at others looking at them, and they look at themselves looking at others looking at them. They are lost in the look, the look of the looker, the look of the look of the looker, the look of the look of the look of the looker, if you see what I mean.9
Coleraine is quite a large town and there is always plenty of hustle and bustle on a Saturday with people moving around, going in and out of shops with their carrier bags advertising Next or Burton, letting everyone see exactly where they have been.
As I pass the various window displays that don’t appeal to me, I quite often look to see what others in my age group are wearing and as they and older men walk past, I usually get a whiff of after-shave lotion, if they’re close enough. I regularly find myself saying “I would love that coat, shirt etc. he’s wearing.”
Anyhow, I start to browse, pulling out shirt after shirt and after managing unsuccessfully to refold them back to their original display form (oops!), I eventually make eye contact with one of the sales assistants. Damn! I can almost read her mind as she walks over and utters the famous line, “Do you need any help?” I smile politely, saying that “I’m just looking”. This time I continue to look around the store, careful to ‘eye up’ the merchandise and not the shop assistants. I spot a denim jacket, something I had been wishing to purchase for some time and the price was just right, a mere 30. Questions began to occupy my mind at this point. What size would best suit me? Would it go with my existing clothes? Turning my back on the other shoppers I start to slowly try on each and every jacket, admiring my ‘new look’ in the mirror opposite. How vain can you get? Well, I did want to buy the one that would best suit me. Even though price was a consideration, I wanted to feel comfortable wearing it and appreciated the sales assistant who, unknown to me, had been watching my elimination process from the other side of the store. ‘You’ve made the right choice’, she said, smiling as I turned round to face her. ‘Do you always do that?’, I mused, realising for the first time she must have been watching me. ‘No’, she replied, ‘I just sort of sensed you were after a bargain when you came in and seeing you’ve found it for yourself makes my job a hell of a lot easier.’ We laughed and as I went to the service desk to pay for my jacket, I knew I’d beat some poor other individual to that all-elusive bargain.
Some of these just lookings, to be sure, are deliciously satisfying. Staring at one’s fetching reflection in a flattering mirror, idly watching the world go by, or witnessing the well-I-never behaviours of fellow shoppers. Then there’s those must-have products that go out of their way to “catch” our expert eye; as well as dangling one’s exclusive carrier-bags in front of less discerning and doubtless deeply jealous others; not to mention that strange consumer communitas, where everyone indulges in a look-at-us-looking-at-us-don’t-we-all-look-lovely moment of shared shopping ecstasy.
Next stop is the men’s fashion store, Topman. As I enter, I ask myself what clothes am I really looking for? As I walked around the store, I keep admiring myself in the mirrors, while making sure nobody sees me doing this. I ask myself, is this normal or am I just a vain person?
Undoubtedly, becoming a student has somewhat curbed my spending activities, but I have since discovered that whilst I may not have the finances necessary for shopping sprees, immense fun is to be had watching other people shopping. For example, I have watched many unsuspecting victims walk smack-bang into glass-fronted High Street shops. Mistaking the glass for the entrance, they plough straight ahead, bounce off the glass, land flat on their backs like starfish, express a look of complete bewilderment and then turn an amazing shade of purple. Trust me, it’s great fun. Well, I think so anyway.
We get out of Next and it’s now about twenty past eight so we decide to go back down the street and head for home. Graham is carrying the bags and both the Benetton and Next bag are so screwed up that you can’t see either name – this bugs me so much. So I take the bags off him and hold them by the handles displaying clearly to everyone along the street just exactly what type of shops I shop in
The store’s full of mothers with children, businessmen in suits and families out for their very first shopping trip to Sainsbury’s. Everyone seems to be watching one another to see if they too should be savouring the experience.
There is, however, an unsettling side to the gaze. Again and again the introspectors mention the antagonistic stares of shop assistants and security staff. These don’t just make them feel idiotic or unwelcome, or uncomfortable, or a ‘soft touch’, deeply disconcerting though that can prove to be. They make them feel like criminals, prospective shoplifters, one step away from a ruinous, character-sullying courtcase. So much so, that ostentatious, merchandise-handling manoeuvres (“I’m not a shoplifter, see!”) have to be engaged in for the benefit of surveillance cameras, store detectives and suspicious assistant managers.10
I threaded my way to the check-out counter to purchase the gift voucher, aware that I was being scrutinised by the security guard with wide eyes. Did I look that out of place? Maybe I did. From one look at the sales assistant in her Next label clothes I felt passionately scruffy and carelessly dressed in the drabbest of clothes. So I made my way out. There was no point lingering. This shop was out of a student’s league.
I must have a look about me that says ‘real crook’ because in around 90% of cases when I go shopping, the notes I hand up are checked to see if they are forged. This makes me think, ‘God, if I am caught, where is the nearest exit, what excuse will I give or do I remember where I obtained this note?’ It gives me an uneasy feeling as if I am a crook.
After circulating all three units, there were two ties which appealed somewhat. Draping the satin trousers over my arm and taking the lime shirt out of the Burtons bag to compare its shade against the ties, I noticed the eye of a senior sales supervisor on me. Did I look like a shoplifter? A student, yes, but shoplifter? At this stage I was sure I was lit up like the City Hall’s Christmas tree, imagining guilt written all over my face. I had to decide soon. Both prints were equally favourable, but the fact that one was three times the price of the other made my decision for me. Taking the cheaper tie, I walked over to the cash point, making over-exaggerated as I went, like replacing the shirt in the bag and holding the tie practically at shoulder height, basically for the benefit of the sales supervisor – yes, it was still in my hand! On receipt of my trousers and tie, further exaggerated movements were made in the form of holding both my Burtons bag and Marks bag at least one foot from my body, holding my receipt in my mouth while pretending to have difficulty in replacing my purse into my bag.
In a similar vein, the gaze -- or imagined gaze -- of other shoppers can prove painfully embarrassing, especially when purchasing items considered to be “uncool” or indicative of some personal foible, failing and, in all probability, perversion.
On entering American Madness, I immediately feel self-conscious, as I am not as trendy as those working behind the counter and I think they are specifically singling me out and questioning my validity as a ‘cool’ customer.
I eventually settle on Boyzone’s ‘A Different Beat’, not that I’m a fan. It’s for my sister’s birthday, which just happens to be conveniently placed the week before Christmas. Approaching the service desk. I’m left feeling awkward and somewhat embarrassed with my potential purchase. I slip into the one-person queue, hoping against hope the line doesn’t grow. Damn! Two students have joined the queue and the thing is I have to slam down my purchase in front of them. A mail-order purchase would have avoided this unnecessary embarrassment. Thank God I don’t know them. Placing the album on the counter I can feel the whole world watching, never mind the two chaps behind me. It seems like forever before she fiends the CD. ‘Oh come on you stupid bitch,’ I feel like saying. All this time, I’m thinking it’s for my sister, but even if I said that, it would sound like a get-out clause. For the first time I manage a glance at the assistant, who is looking at me almost suspiciously as she waits for my payment. After all, a twenty-one year-old guy doesn’t look like the average teenybopper. I pass her a twenty pound note and am almost relieved when she finally bags my purchase. Let’s get out of here comes to mind!
Every five or six weeks I have a terrible shopping experience, that is shopping for toiletries such as shampoo, deodorant (spray and stick), bubble bath, toothpaste, shaving foam, yellow Bic razors and, an odd time, moisturiser (don’t tell anyone). I always feel that people are watching me. I don’t look up in case they are. It is the same feeling I used to get when I was 16, trying to get into a niteclub. This is especially the case when purchasing moisturiser and, NO, I am not a sissy, I just have dry skin on my eyebrows. Shopping for toiletries is done quickly. I do not stand and ponder over one deodorant or another, sniffing here, spraying there. I lift the same items every time and go to the checkout with my hand over my mouth, constantly looking at my feet. I always become embarrassed with this. The counter assistant is bound to think that I am a real smelly so and so, needing all this deodorant.
No less irksome is the meta-gaze. This involves looking at others looking at what one’s looking at and reflecting on how bizarre it must appear to the doubtless rapt but undoubtedly bemused onlooker.
Where now? Dorothy Perkins for a look around. Why break the habit of a lifetime? Walked in, walked out. Topshop? Why not. Oh dear, I’m a bit large for some of those tops! Let’s look at the trousers or skirts. People are probably looking at me looking at the minute tops and thinking, ‘how will she ever…?!!’
In these carceral circumstances, where all-seeing eyes peer from the purveying-purchasing Panopticon, it is little wonder that many shoppers feel it necessary to “throw dirty looks” at contiguous consumers or indulge in acts of retailing rebellion, subversion, insurrection. Some of these acts are playful and transgressive, in keeping with the irreverent post-shopper mentality, but others are deliberate reactions against being made to feel like convicts, delinquents, the sloppers-out of shopping.
I headed into The Gap to have a ‘wee squint’ at the foxy sales assistants – sorry the jumpers. I could never possibly work in here, as I’d wager that a degree in the art of clothes-folding is one of the job specifications. I mean, there are masses of brightly-coloured pullovers tucked and stacked up giving the effect of some sort of bizarre luminous city skyline. It was therefore my duty to wreak havoc on this ghastly perfection, so I rummaged through the jumpers like a contestant searching for a clue on Supermarket Sweep. However, no sooner had I put some distance between myself and the scene of the crime, two sales assistants leapt into action plying their trade with robotic expertise. I of course received the cutting glance which asked me if I had any decorum and, if so, where was it?
As I glanced up, I could see huge numbers of customers walking around the store. When I was strolling around eyeing up the variety of clothes on display and what bargains I could see, everyone was colliding and bumping into me, especially mothers with prams hitting my heels, all of them trying desperately to get their perfect bargain of the day. At this point I became extremely annoyed, whilst at the same time anyone who came within half an inch of me, received one of my ‘vicious dirty looks’.
On one occasion, whilst walking round the Foyleside wearing shell-suit bottoms and a rugby polo shirt, I spied a shirt I liked in Parks. Parks is very expensive but I thought ‘what the hell!’ So I walked casually into Parks and over to the shirt. Whilst looking at the shirt I could see some of the staff in Parks look at me as if I was a tramp who had just walked in off the street. It was there and then that I would no longer purchase the shirt although I liked it and even though it was in my price range. Therefore I made up my mind to annoy the staff as much as possible. There were designer label jeans costing £79.99 which I decided to try on; I tried various different sizes so they would have to fetch clothes from the shelves to the fitting rooms. Then I decided I would need shoes to match my jeans so I tried on different sizes until I found a pair I liked. Both the jeans and the shoes totalled £125, so as the assistant and I walked towards the till, her thinking she had made a great sale, I informed her I had left my cheque book at home and could not pay for the clothes and promptly left.
Given the nature of their studies and career aspirations, it can be safely inferred that our essayists are more favourably disposed than most towards the retailing system. Yet, even here, deep concerns about the morality of the marketplace and the materialistic ethic it engenders, are readily apparent.
After returning from my holidays, I swore that I would do my utmost to avoid the torture of shopping, which is after all arguably a form of organised looting and pillaging. I was more convinced than ever that shopping was put before us to encourage greed, invite acquisitiveness and a hunger for possession, not to mention the must-have mania. However, a few weeks later the shopping needs were beginning to bite. The ink cartridge on my computer had seen better days, I needed to buy a suit for one of those dreadful job interviews and the rest of my family had gone on holiday, which meant that I needed to do some food shopping. Another shopping ordeal was looming...As I pondered on this thought, the phone rang. It was my friend Bob. He sensed the anguish in my voice. ‘What could be the matter Brian, you poor soul?’ ‘Bob, I can’t take it any more, I’m afraid I’ve got a terminal dose of the shopping heebie-jeebies.’
Morality, to be sure, goes out of the window when an exclusive free-gift, bonus pack or two-for-the-price-of-one special offer hoves into view. But, hey, waddya want from a post-shopper? Consistency? Predictability? Rectitude? Get real! Get hyperreal! Get outta here!
- 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