Consuming: Christmas challenge in the high street

You have to buy six seemingly unique, lovingly selected Christmas gifts from a dozen chain stores situated on the averagely dismal high street. We set this consumer challenge to two unseasoned shoppers. How did they fare? Read on
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Will Carling has shown the way. His spending spree on London's Fulham Road last week provided the blueprint for Christmas shoppers everywhere. In just 10 unflustered minutes, he left the paparazzi in his wake, forking out pounds l,000 for a woman's sheepskin coat with the single-minded resolve you'd expect from an England captain and business guru.

With a mere fraction of Will's purchasing power, I'm hoping to equal his performance on a parky Friday afternoon in Peterborough. The Queensgate shopping centre may not be as chichi as SW3, but the same strategy applies. It's simply a question of time management and pin-pointing achievable goals.

Refusing to be side-tracked by Santa's Roadshow, I launch myself at the task ahead. First port of call is Next, where I too check out the sheepskin - in this case, gloves for my dad. There are none in stock. I feel my chest tightening with agitation. I reject the creepy black leather (too OJ Simpson) and the doeskin (poor dead Bambi) and choose a manly pair in tan. Their polyester and acrylic lining could bring tears to your eyes. Still, at pounds l9.99, they make for a promising start.

WH Smith, however, takes the wind out of my sails. Mystic Meg's astrocalendar just won't do for my Nan. After years spent fobbing her off with a box of mint imperials and a lavender pomander, the VE Day commemorations have pricked my conscience. This Christmas, I feel the old girl deserves a bit more consideration.

At the portals of H Samuel, I spy just the job: a VE Day hip flask, featuring an engraved street party in full swing. On second thoughts, perhaps it's not suitable for a teetotal Methodist. Happily, there are plenty more options inside, though I decide against "Keeper of the Skulls", a pewter- grey, snake-infested death's-head from the "Myth and Magic" range (not in the Christmas spirit) and HMS Victory in a bottle (complete junk).

Then I see it: the H Samuel "Cream and sugar set" (pounds 12.99). Two gleaming pots on a regal salver. To my untutored eye, it's a masterpiece of Regency elegance, fit to grace any sideboard. Closer inspection reveals it to be suspiciously light and tinny - but never mind. It may not withstand scrutiny on Antiques Roadshow but I reckon Nan will be none the wiser. I make a bee-line for the till.

Five minutes later and sister-in-law is accounted for as well. A shufty through River Island's "relaxed and stylish homewear range" has unearthed some red-check pyjamas (pounds 19.99) among the teddy bear slippers and socks. The only obstacle to their purchase is a pair of sniggering teenage girls who think it's funny to follow me around talking about Wonderbras. I move into a corner and inspect a pair of fluffy pink moccasins until they've gone.

Brimming with confidence, I give Salisbury's short shrift. Luggage shops have never popped my cork, no matter how much they're spiced up with golfing accessories and automatic umbrellas. Besides, Burton's beckons. It's been a long time since I crossed its threshold. More than a decade ago, it saw my stonewashed initiation into the world of menswear. I'd like to buy something here, to connect with my youth, to complete the circle, but even though the familiar rows of shimmering suits welcome me back, my heart isn't in it. Not even the Insignia gift-packs can roll back the years.

I draw a blank at Dixons, too, where the only items in my price range seem to be multi-packs of blank tapes and novelty mouse pads. After 15 minutes weaving round stacks of harshly lit electrical goods, I'm starting to lose the plot. Plagued with doubts about the cream and sugar set, I waste a further 10 minutes agonising over a Black & Decker Snake Light. In desperation, I pace the shop floor, furtively eyeing other people's selections for ideas, looking like a demented store detective.

Thirty minutes remaining. This is getting serious. Lurching from Dixons to gather my thoughts, I realise I've still got an ace up my sleeve: Marks and Spencer. Within minutes, I'm riding the escalator into Home Furnishings and the world seems a better place. It doesn't take long to pick out an espresso coffee machine for brother and emerge from Ladieswear with a velvet scarf for mother. It's not until the cashier rings up pounds 50 that I realise I've miscalculated horribly. With one present still to buy, I'm already pounds 2.97 over my limit and facing a budget deficit worthy of the Juppe Plan.

Fortunately, it's only my four-year-old nephew who'll suffer for my extravagance. A trip to the cashpoint for an extra tenner leaves me five minutes to scout round Boots. Much as I'd like to see him set about his parents' furniture with the Fix-it toolbox, he has to make do with Boots' Big Bag of Bricks (pounds 4.99). Making my way home, I feel a twinge of guilt at Junior's meagre gift, but someone's got to instruct him in the virtues of thrift and prudence amid the consumer frenzy. Besides, he never gives me a present anyway.

The recipients: mother, father, brother, sister-in-law, four-year- old child (sex unspecified) and granny.

The budget: pounds 100.

The time allowed: two hours.

The shops: Boots, Marks & Spencer, Dixons, Tie Rack, Next, H Samuel, Sock Shop, WH Smith, River Island, Salisbury's, Burton's.

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