BRYSON'S AMERICA: Stores come in three types - all disagreeable

I WENT into a Toys `R' Us the other day with my youngest so that he could spend some loot he had come into. (He had gone short on Anaconda Copper against his broker's advice, the little scamp. And, entirely by the way, isn't Toys `R' Us the most mystifying name of a commercial concern you have ever heard of? What does it mean? I have never understood it. Are they saying they believe themselves to be toys? Do their executives carry business cards saying "Dick `R' Me?" And why is the `R' backwards in the title? Surely not in the hope that it will enhance our admiration? Why, above all, is it that even though there are 37 checkout lanes at every Toys `R' Us in the world, only one of them is ever open?

These are important questions, but sadly this is not our theme today, at least not specifically. No, our theme today, as we stand on the brink of the busiest retail week of the year, is shopping. To say that shopping is an important part of American life is like saying that fish appreciate water.

Apart from working, sleeping, watching TV and accumulating fatty tissue, Americans devote more time to shopping than to any other pastime. Indeed, according to the Travel Industry Association of America, shopping is now the number one holiday activity of Americans. People actually plan their vacations around shopping trips. Hundreds of thousands of people a year travel to Niagara Falls, it transpires, not to see the falls but to wander through its two mega-malls. Soon, if developers in Arizona get their way, holidaymakers will be able to travel to the Grand Canyon and not see it either, for there are plans, if you can believe it, to build a 450,000- square-foot shopping centre by its main entrance.

Shopping these days is not so much a business as a science. There is even now an academic discipline called retail anthropology whose proponents can tell you exactly where, how and why people shop the way they do. They know which proportion of customers will turn right upon entering a store (87 per cent) and how long on average those people will browse before wandering out again (two minutes and 36 seconds). They know the best ways to lure shoppers into the magic, high-margin depths of the shop (an area known in the trade as "Zone 4") and the layouts, colour schemes and background music that will most effectively hypnotise the unassuming browser into becoming a helpless purchaser. They know everything.

So here is my question. Why, then, is it that I cannot go shopping in America without wanting either to burst into tears or kill someone? For all its science, you see, shopping in this country is no longer a fun experience, if it ever was.

A big part of the problem is the stores. They come in three types, all disagreeable.

First, there are the stores where you can never find anyone to help you. Then there are the stores where you don't want any help, but you are pestered to the brink of madness by a persistent sales assistant, probably working on commission. Finally, there are the stores where, when you ask where anything is, the answer is always "Aisle seven." I don't know why, but that is what they always tell you.

"Where's women's lingerie?" you ask.

"Aisle seven."

"Where's pet food?"

"Aisle seven."

"Where's aisle six?"

"Aisle seven."

My least favourite of all store types is the one where you can't get rid of the sales assistant. Usually these are department stores at big malls. The sales assistant is always a white-haired lady working in the menswear department.

"Can I help you find anything?" she says.

"No thank you, I'm just browsing," you tell her.

"OK," she replies, and gives you a smarmy smile that says: "I don't really like you; I'm just required to smile at everyone."

So you wander round the department and at some point you idly finger a sweater. You don't know why because you don't like it, but you touch it anyway.

In an instant, the sales assistant is with you. "That's one of our most popular lines," she says. "Would you like to try it on?"

"No, thank you."

"Go ahead, try it on. It's you."

"No, I really don't think so."

"The changing rooms are just there."

"I really don't want to try it on."

"What's your size?"

"Please understand, I don't want to try it on. I'm just browsing."

She gives you another smile - her withdrawing smile - but 30 seconds later she is back, bearing another sweater. "We have it in peach," she announces.

"I don't want that sweater. In any colour."

"How about a nice tie, then?"

"I don't want a tie. I don't want a sweater. I don't want anything. My wife is having her legs waxed and told me to wait for her here. I wish she hadn't, but she did. She could be hours and I still won't want anything, so please don't ask me any more questions. Please."

"Then how are you off for pants?"

Do you see what I mean? It becomes a choice between tears and manslaughter. The irony is that when you actually require assistance there is never anyone around.

At Toys `R' Us my son wanted a Star Troopers Intergalactic Cosmic Death Blaster, or some such piece of plastic mayhem. We couldn't find one anywhere, nor could we find anyone to guide us. The store appeared to be in the sole charge of a 16-year-old boy at the single active checkout till. He had a queue of about two dozen people, which he was processing very slowly and methodically.

Patient queuing is not one of my advanced social skills, particularly when I am queuing simply to acquire information. The line moved with painful slowness. At one point the young man took 10 minutes to change a till roll, and I nearly killed him then.At last my turn came. "Where's the Star Troopers Intergalactic Cosmic Death Blasters?" I said.

"Aisle seven," he replied without looking up.

I stared at the top of his head. "Don't trifle with me," I said.

He looked up. "Excuse me?"

"You people always say `Aisle seven.'"

There must have been something in my look because his answer came out as a kind of whimper. "But, mister, it is aisle seven - Toys of Violence and Aggression."

"It'd better be," I said darkly and departed.

Ninety minutes later we found the Death Blasters in aisle two, but by the time I got back to the till the young man had gone off duty. The Death Blaster is wonderful, by the way. It fires those rubber-cupped darts that stick to the victim's forehead - not painful, but certainly startling. My son was disappointed, of course, that I wouldn't let him have it, but you see I need it for when I go shopping.

Extracted from `Notes from a Big Country' by Bill Bryson, published by Doubleday at pounds 16.99. Available from all major bookshops, and by mail order on 01624 675137

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk