Thursday, 14 June 2007

Shop 'til You Drop

“It’s the world turned upside down! I was through the looking glass!”

A shopping trip shouldn’t be something that leaves you questioning your sanity, or wondering where you went wrong in life. Shopping – consumerising on any kind of scale – should, for a short moment, leave you feeling elated and fulfilled. That is at least until the urge and need for the next item, or the guilt and compound interest comes.

A few recent examples for you. I picked up a copy of Agent Zigzag – the story of Eddie Chapman, a former safecracker and suave crook turned double-agent spy during the Second World War. All very good and well, a book that looks good, and, four chapters in, is reading fairly well. Then a friend mentioned that he was looking for a copy of The Road, the latest in paperback Cormac McCarthy book – a book that I too would be interested in reading. I remembered seeing that both books were in a typical 3 for 2 deal at the bookstore, and so suggested that I get both books, and pick up a spare, we do a mini book club read and swap, and he can buy the next batch of books and repeat the process.

Three books being read by two people is a pretty good model, as there should never be a moment where someone is left waiting too long for a book.

I phoned ahead and colluded with the person in the shop;

“Hi, I bought a book that’s in your 3 for 2 range, and now my friend wants one that is also in the range. Would you mind if I returned my book, then re-bought it with the other book, and then took a free one?” I asked.

The man on the end of the phone sighed, mentioned company policy and the like – but I got the impression this was part pantomime – deep down he either didn’t care or respected my chutzpah, but he said sure and told me to ask for ‘John’ like it was some secret code word, some underground pass. I returned the book and did the exchange, and ‘John’ complimented me on my other selections.

A good transaction, leaving me feeling like I had achieved something, that I had sense and spirit and balls for effectively buying something. In fact I still am yet to feel any guilt about buying something that I spend far too much money on as it is.

Another positive, this one from a seeming negative. The hard-drive on my beloved G4 Mac Powerbook has died or broken or some such technical term. And so off to the Apple store. I didn’t know it was broken, but a visit to their Genius bar taught me that it was broken through a cable and a word in red.

“See,” said the Genius, pointing at the screen of my beloved laptop, “It’s red. That means that your hard-drive is broken – you’re going to need to replace it.” Now if it wasn’t for the strong affection that I hold for the lap-top, and the fact that it cost a lot to buy some 3 and a bit years ago, I’m sure that the well-trained consumer in me would have simply bought a new lap-top. But a deal was struck, some two hundred and odd pounds would replace the dead hard-drive and repair the beloved. The sneaky part of my brain, the one that looked at the sleek, black MacBooks on the way in, thought about how I had already been given a pass by my wife to visit the Apple Store in Pasadena when we head over to her home for Christmas this year, and a pass to pick up a new lap-top, as I simply ‘need one’. But I do love that G4. So I booked it in for the repair.

“How much is Office for the Mac now days?” I asked as the Genius booked in the beloved.

“It’s about three hundred pounds” came the reply – I think my eyes widened, Fair play to Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation and all that, but surely that is professional consumer prices? For big companies and the like?

“We do have a Student/Teacher edition that is only 100 pounds.” Added the Genius, “Have you got an NUS card, or a teacher ID?”

I don’t. But I did recently teach a tester class for an evening course that I was planning to do if interest could be drummed up. I told him about the evening course – I didn’t mention that only one person had shown up for the tester, and that initially there was no interest, but that it might run next term because three people have mentioned that they would consider doing it.

“Tell you what, if you buy it from me, I’ll give you the Student/Teacher edition.” The Genius offered. How could I resist? I wasn’t spending one hundred pounds, I was saving two hundred! Almost covering the cost of the repairs! In fact, if the repairs were effectively for free and I wouldn’t need a new laptop, I was effectively saving one thousand to fifteen hundred pounds!

Finally we turn to a friend who recently told me how he was “mugged” at the new Abercrombie and Fitch store in London. A place that is designed to trap you like cattle and move you quickly from item to item, all the while flashing staff that are so perfectly formed that you aspire to be them! He couldn’t stop himself – he bought a pair of shorts for an amount that you could buy shoes, or jeans or even a very nice jumper for, and he couldn’t, because the lighting was so bad, even see what colour they were! A bad shopping experience.

Let’s return for a moment though to the staff – People very rarely aspire to be shop staff, to work in the servitude of indecisive and often rude people, fetching them clothes and like and ringing things up and packing things for them. One wants to lord it over these servers – not too much though, just enough to feel like they have gone out of their way to help you and that you have gotten more from them than the next or last person did. Yet at the A and F store, one feels like they not only aspire to be like the staff, but that they have no chance of reaching that level. So you go there, spend a lot of money and leave feeling the instant impact of consumer guilt – that guilt that normally comes when you get home and are hit in the cold light of day by the realization that what you bought will not make you more beautiful or more successful or a better person.

Not a good shopping experience at all.

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