Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, September 22, 2006

Shopping: How it became our national disease

We are rapidly turning into a nation of continuous shoppers, unable to walk the streets without making purchases, however trivial. Somehow we have come to believe the marketers' hype: we must always treat ourselves - we're worth it.

by Lynsey Hanley

New Statesman Cover story (September 18 2006)

The woman in the NatWest knew what she wanted. "Basically, I need to put it somewhere where I can't get my grubby mitts on it, 'cos if I know I can, I'll just spend it all". She was talking about her hard-earned money, of which, in the shop-laden centre of Nottingham, she could be relieved in a flash.

A bit of a problem, that, unless you have a will of titanium. On a ten-minute walk through the city's long pedestrianised arcade, I casually inspected, and very nearly bought, two T-shirts from Muji, reduced from GBP 25 to GBP 5 each; a fruit and nut bar and a caffe` latte from Pret A Manger; a haircut; a copy of the new David Peace novel from Waterstone's; some "thermal spa" flavoured bubble bath from Superdrug; a pair of flip-flops; and two newspapers.

Even though my own bank account, on that particular day, rang in at minus GBP 1,041.05, I could have bought all these things without anyone telling me off. There were a good few hundred pounds to go before my overdraft exhausted its supply of goodwill. It was sheer restraint - or, rather, retraining - that prevented me from loading up on goods that, though each in its own way pleasure-giving, were not necessary for my survival.

While avoiding these resistance-dampening opportunities, you are encouraged to "take a Muffin Break" because, according to the cake stall of that name, you deserve to treat yourself. You're also asked, in ketchup-red writing the height of a man's hand, whether you should take a break to have a Wimpy, because surely you deserve that, too. What with the muffin and the Wimpy, you can quickly develop a view of the shopping experience as one involving small food rewards for every few paces you stagger under the weight of bogofs (for those of you who tend to buy the things you need one at a time, that's an acronym for "buy one, get one free" offers).

Thirty-one-year-old Richard believes that that's exactly the case. Having run up GBP 10,000 on credit cards in his early twenties, often on things he can barely remember buying, he is convinced that sophisticated marketing and the availability of easy credit make a lethal combination.

"In Nottingham, most nineteen-year-olds would think nothing of spending GBP 50 on bits and bobs in a lunch hour or GBP 100 on a Saturday. At least once every day, you think: 'I need a pick-me-up'. And whether it's a forty pence bar of chocolate or forty quid on a shirt, there's hundreds of opportunities to do that without even thinking about it. The point is, you think you need a treat and the advertising in shops reinforces it."

Nottingham feels like a city whose air of affluence and cosmopolitanism is built on the quality and number of its shops. Indeed, consumers in the East Midlands spend a greater proportion of their weekly income than those anywhere else in Britain outside London. Nottingham's city centre feels as though it has always existed solely for people to shop in. We know, of course, that it hasn't: the city-centre quarter I stayed in, Lace Market, was named after the old lacemaking industry, through which the city made its first fortune, in the latter half of the 19th century.

The hotel where I took a room has a directory that offers its customers a half-page pre'cis of the role of that industry in creating the building in which you can now sit grazing on minibar-cold Pringles before retiring to a bed slathered in thick Egyptian cotton. On the next page, under the title "Retail therapy", begins a list six pages long of Nottingham's shops, boutiques, concessions, department stores and kiosks, "so that you can maximise your shopping experience". There are "pricey, funky ladies' high-street fashions" at Whistles; Reiss, the unisex fashion chain, is housed in "a stunning conversion of an old chapel" (the Pitcher & Piano wine bar has taken this theme further by colonising a huge redundant church); Slater mens wear has "branches in just fourteen gateway cities", a mysterious retail circle of trust that also includes Birmingham, Glasgow and Basingstoke.

Should the toil of traipsing around six pages' worth of shops become too much for the mind and feet, and the prospect of a Muffin Break not fill you with relief, you can visit the UK's only Aveda Urban Therapy "lifestyle salon and spa", a woodblock-lined room filled with forest-smelling unguents, as if to suggest that shopping may, after all, create the kind of existential misgivings that can be quelled only by a return to nature (of a sort).

Alternatively - although neither the hotel nor the local buses, which are plastered with advertisements for gift vouchers that are valid in all shops in Nottingham, will tell you this - you can train yourself out of buying things, but that wouldn't endear you either to the city or to those who believe that if we all stopped shopping, we would be the immoral agents of Britain's economic collapse.

Champagne on Fridays

I knew that the British spending boom had started when I saw two women, aged no more than twenty and not in the slightest bit posh-looking, walk off a Tube train in central London each with a bottle of champagne. This was about 1998, during the lovely long Labour honeymoon, when buying Moet on a Friday - just because it was a Friday - seemed a perfectly normal thing to do, and hell, we all deserved it just for surviving the previous eighteen years. I don't know how anyone got the money, but we did; my boyfriend and I were barely out of university, and yet we ate out twice a week and bought designer coats. It was the most exciting feeling in the world, to be able to live in the city and buy things; it made us feel like pop stars. It seemed to satisfy in us a desire to feel special.

Now we've grown out of it, we camp for our holidays and are clothed by Primark. I shop on the high street so rarely that computers have doubled in memory between my visits to Dixons. I wouldn't say I was disgusted with the younger me; in fact, I feel oddly proud of the carpe diem spirit that led to my acquisition of an American Express Platinum Card at the age of 25, though I'd never earned more than GBP 25,000 a year. Amex gave me the card because I bought things as easily as I breathed. Stuff never runs out: as long as you show a willingness to buy it, stuff will be there for you, like a creature that comes to life only when you choose it to be your friend.

The 25-year-old on 25 grand with a Platinum Amex became a 26-year-old who had spent GBP 20,000 on credit cards in a single year. It wasn't just the Amex, it was the Egg; it was the MBNA; it was the Capital One; it was the First Direct loan, followed by the new Egg card to surf the zero interest rate until its six months of free credit were up. The GBP 1,000 on one card would be syphoned into my overdraft, to be replaced by another grand off a different, maxed-out card, which in turn would be filled to the limit with Habitat cushions. What on earth made me think that, at the age of 26, I had the right to buy such splendiferous guff without having first earned - literally, by working and saving - the money to do so?

"I found it shockingly easy to get a credit card with a generous limit", says Richard. "I was 22 or 23 at the time and they immediately gave me a limit that was half my yearly salary. I thought that, by the time I was thirty - which seemed like an age away - I'd be earning loads and I'd pay it all off without any trouble. The effect of having so much credit to spend was that things that I had previously thought I just couldn't afford, all of a sudden I could. The card was just this plastic thing in a bright colour that gave me free money, or so I thought."

Don't suppress the urge

The Economic and Social Research Council recently reported that many consumers are far more ignorant of how credit works than they believe themselves to be. Dr David Voas of the University of Manchester, in research for the ESRC, argued that Richard's view of credit as "free money" is worryingly common: "People either don't want to think about personal finance or, particularly among the middle classes, have a deluded view of their own financial capability".

There are other ways in which the casual, but constant, shopper can tell themselves that their actions have only benign, or even positive, consequences. "Shopping and social justice are not mutually exclusive value systems, but ones that most people want to coexist alongside each other; my daughters think as well as shop and seem fine moral beings to me", wrote the economics commentator Will Hutton in the Observer last year. The following week the paper received a wheelie bin's worth of letters accusing him of moral relativism and, worse, of glib indifference to the toll of personal bankruptcies. To cap it all, he wrote about gleefully purchasing a GBP 4 "Rolex", a tacit endorsement of sweated labour.

The point he was making was that, unlike the urge to fight or to steal, the urge to shop is one that you're positively discouraged from suppressing. You're not doing anything wrong by using your free time deliberating over the relative merits of pink tops and green ones, he says, somewhat disingenuously, given that Hutton is chief executive of the Work Foundation. Shop jobs are filled by millions, but at hourly rates far, far lower than the skilled manual jobs they have largely replaced.

Still, consumer spending goes up every month and is seen as a cause for celebration. In June, as the UK card payments association Apacs revealed, spending on plastic cards amounted to GBP 26.4 billion. So far this year, we have spent GBP 151 billion on cards alone, a rise of 6.6 per cent compared to the same period in 2005. Cities such as Nottingham and Birmingham, its larger, shop-saturated Midlands neighbour, seem at a loss to fill their centres with anything other than more places in which to process wealth.

Urban therapy

The idea of urbanity has come to mean a lifestyle that is given routine and meaning by buying things. It could once have meant promenading, or being able to speak more than one language, or attending public lectures, but in the past twenty years it has been revised to stand for shopping and little else. Cities are no longer able to support themselves, or the national economy, by making things; they now do so by selling things made elsewhere.

But Nottingham isn't composed solely of urban therapy spas and delicatessens. Its Broadmarsh Centre - which sounds, unfortunately, like a high-security mental hospital, and doesn't do much to dispel that impression once you're in there - is full of the kinds of shops frequented by people whose poverty, according to a recent Institute for Fiscal Studies investigation into household spending, carried out for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is measured better by how much they spend than by how much they earn.

The things you buy here are carried out in plain white or unbranded blue plastic bags rather than in tote bags made of stiff card. Bogofs abound: on trousers, shampoo, KitKats, Curly Wurlys, frozen burgers and school shirts. It's not urban or urbane, at least not in the new senses of the words; it's provincial. It's full of things you need, as well as things you want, although it would be hard to enter a branch of Poundland without walking out carrying at least twice as many items as you went in for. Elderly couples and large families stock up cheaply and invisibly here while the stiff-card-bag boutiques that encircle it get on with the job of making the rest of the city look cool.

In the everything's-a-pound shop, a man firmly tells his wife that they already have two badminton rackets, and that there's no room in the garage for more. She goes instead to pick up a pack of three tennis balls. In the crook of her arm are stashed two bottles of mint washing-up liquid and a straw dolly. She has a few spare pound coins to burn. She's not rich, but still she needs treating, if only with the knowledge that she can afford to make impulse buys: things over and above those on her shopping list.

Pound shops fulfil precisely the same role as what are known in our household as "fiddly-widdly" shops: those boutiques you enter idly on day trips that sell furry photo frames and scented candles. They kill time, and the ache to be rewarded simply for existing, nicely. Shopping centres are dark and windowless, and full of man-made things. Why do we go to them whenever we have free time? Why do we spend more time in them than is strictly necessary? Why do we attach greater urgency to the search for a bargain than to sitting in a park and reading?

A new book by Professor Avner Offer of All Souls College, Oxford, suggests that, in so doing, we succumb to "myopic choice": once our basic needs are met, we do the thing that's nearest and easiest to do, rather than the more difficult thing that might sustain us better in the long term. As Homer Simpson would concur, a doughnut is much nicer than a rice cake, and slips down more easily. Shopping is the sugary snack; healthy walks the improving one. One treats - and therefore affirms - instantly; the other has rewards that are deferred and built up slowly, and which require sustained effort to realise.

The opening line of Offer's book, The Challenge of Affluence: Self-control and Well-being in the United States and Britain since 1950 (Oxford University Press, 2006), provides a succinct statement of his case: "Affluence breeds impatience, and impatience undermines well-being". To avoid shopping for something you want is to put off something you enjoy, even though waiting for the treat - until, let's say, you've got the money to pay for it - is ultimately far more satisfying.

A few pages later, Offer presents another, equally plausible, aphorism: "Prudence has built up affluence, but affluence undermines prudence". In other words, we have historically kept our belts tight and delayed gratification, which has created a society that is largely comfortably off. Now that we have all we need, and many of us have built up comfortable nest eggs in the form of housing equity, we've started to loosen those belts.

Shop more, spend less

Until 2003, says Apacs, British shoppers tended to split their spending on plastic cards roughly equally between debit and credit cards. Now, seventy per cent of card transactions are carried out on debit cards, suggesting that consumers would rather spend as they go with the money - or overdraft - they have, rather than stack it up on credit cards. Smaller purchases that once would have been paid for in cash are now dealt with by a swipe of the debit card: a sensible-seeming habit, but less so when purchases, unlike those made with a finite supply of hard cash, can add up without you even noticing.

Meanwhile, Bank of England figures show that the number of personal bankruptcy cases grew by 66 per cent between last year and this, and that, not even counting debit card spending, in excess of GBP 120 billion is spent every year on credit cards alone. Not counting debit cards, there are nearly seventy million credit cards in circulation, spread unevenly among a population of sixty million. But a combination of low inflation, cheap developing-world labour, and the law of diminishing returns means that things are getting cheaper all the time, enabling people to shop more while not necessarily spending more.

A friend in her late twenties, whose parents "would sooner go hungry than pay a penny in interest", pays for everything on her debit card, "because the overdraft then scares me into reining in my spending again". Like Richard, she quickly saw the folly of spending on credit, but she regularly goes overdrawn in order to stock up on clothes that she might wear once. "I just think: 'Sod it, why not enjoy the money?'"

But that still doesn't explain why people choose shopping over other, potentially more reflective, more relaxing activities. Nobody is forced to shop, but - like boozing or surfing the internet - once you do a little, the temptation is to do a lot. The BBC2 play Shiny Shiny Bright New Hole In My Heart, broadcast in July, suggested that obsessive shopping is a reflection of humanity in distress - of people flailing about for meaning in a secular world and buying things as if the soul were a giant Santa sack that needs filling.

The psychologist Oliver James describes this existential bargain hunt as a symptom of what he calls Affluenza. His book of the same name, which is published next January, offers a remedy for the disease of ceaseless acquisition that involves forming and maintaining closer human relationships, in order to close up the void we at present attempt to fill with things we have bought.

Like Offer, James singles out the United States and Britain, with their highly individualised market societies, as the countries in which you are most likely to suffer mental health problems. Clearly, he argues, affluence is good for us in one way but bad for us in another.

"The Affluenza virus", he wrote in the Observer at the start of this year, "is a set of values which increase our vulnerability to psychological distress: placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions, looking good in the eyes of others and wanting to be famous". But if we know that shopping can make us unhappy, why do we still do it?

A contrite, but less distressed, Richard thinks he has the answer. "It's like some other person takes over your identity. I often used to get my bill and I'd have bought, say, nine things I didn't need or even want in the past week, and I'd think: 'When did I buy that?' Once or twice I've rung up the bank and said: 'I think someone else has been buying on my card, because I don't remember buying this'. Then you realise afterwards that it was actually you."

That day in Nottingham, some other person took over my identity and took twelve items into the Gap fitting room in the expectation of buying one or two. I - or my mysterious infiltrator - had to suppress the urge to skip to the till. With three full bags and an overdraft squeaking at its outer limits, I floated down the high street, past a group of boys displaying the price tags intact on their baseball caps, a terrier puppy in a bespoke cricketing jumper, and a toddler in her pushchair dragging a tiny clutch bag in the shape of a woman's basque along the pavement. I've had less surreal dreams than that.

Credit card debt by numbers

Research by Joshua Hergesheimer

69.9 million the number of credit cards in circulation in the UK

GBP 122.2 billion total credit-card spending in UK retailers in 2005

3.4 million number of credit cardholders in the UK regularly making only the minimum repayment

GBP 25 billion average amount spent per month on all plastic cards

64 number of credit-card transactions carried out per second

1.13 million number of debt inquiries the Citizens Advice Bureau dealt with last year

GBP 32,000 average debt of a client approaching the Consumer Credit Counselling Service for advice

Copyright (c) New Statesman 1913 - 2006

Bill Totten


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