At Lakeside, the truth dawns - we have become a species of advertising hoarding. Clan and totem have given way to corporate logo. Are you Burtons, Benetton, Principles? Or Sweathog, Envy or Altered Image? Your bag, a brief visual essay on social aspiration and economic reality, has the answer.
Lakeside is 1.35 million square feet of glass-roofed, climate-controlled, weather-resistant retail space, from Debenhams and House of Fraser to Bearloons, the ultimate shop for teddy-bear necessities. City-sized, it has as many shops as the centre of Oxford; its own police; boulevard cafes and civic fountains. But walk out of the entrance and where are you? Somewhere near the M25, the A13, the A126 and the A1306, in a wilderness of pylons, cement works and reclaimed gravel pits.
As Christmas approaches, 350,000 people a week are driving to Lakeside, to park in one of the 9,000 spaces and spend around pounds 120 each. Over the Christmas period our shopping bill rises from around pounds 13bn to about pounds 24bn, roughly 40 times the gross national product of Somalia.
Dozens of huge out-of-town American-style shopping malls were mooted in the 1980s, but because of recession and the planners, only three besides Lakeside have been built. Even so, many analysts think they represent the future of shopping, not least because they have turned it into a branch of aesthetics.
So Lakeside claims, anyway. 'Discover the art of shopping,' murmurs its guide. Brian Lucas, Lakeside's manager, looks rueful. 'It's our gimmick,' he says. 'I'm not sure it means anything, except to say that we want people to come and see how pleasant it can be to shop and have a good time.'
A good time at Lakeside could mean watching the world barefoot water-skiing championships, popping into the seven-screen cinema, or eating at one of the centre's 30 food outlets, from Wok & Roll and Yog'N'Fruit to the Mississippi Queen Old Orleans Floating Restaurant.
By comparison with North American mega-malls, this may be tame - the Mall of America in Minnesota has a golf course and nightclub, the West Edmonton Mall in Canada has a dolphinarium - but Mr Lucas believes that at Lakeside 'the ambience makes people more relaxed and willing to spend money'.
Many learned articles have been written about the hidden persuaders of selling. Orchestrated fragrances of baked bread or ground coffee set pleasurable endorphins flowing. Trainee retailers are taught the 'colour wheel' - adjacent colours for harmony, opposed for drama. Indisputably, ambience is the key. It has helped Lakeside to defy the recession - spending is 25 per cent up on last year - and it is easy to spot.
For instance, Lakeside shops have no doors. Inside them, goods are heaped in apparently careless profusion. Only the laser scanners near the entrance give a hint of watchfulness. The message is: walk right in and help yourself.
Lakeside likes browsers. A third of its visitors come out of curiosity or for entertainment, many by coach, some from as far away as Wales or the North of England. They have no shopping list, yet they stay longer and spend more than those who do. You can see the browsers being pulled in like trout by gleaming window displays. By mid-afternoon they have formed exhausted huddles on the white civic-style seating.
Why do they come? 'It's a day out,' said John Ward, 74, who had paid pounds 4.50 for a 100-mile round trip by coach from Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire, arrived at noon and is huddling by 2pm. Aren't there shops in Rickmansworth? Yes, but here you don't get wet, the presentation is good, you can have a meal.
'It's like a trip to the seaside,' Mr Lucas explained. 'People get fed up with their own town'.
In the United States, where there are 36,000 malls, shopping is the second most popular leisure pursuit - six hours per person a week - after watching television. There are self-help groups for sufferers from compulsive shopping - a condition that a Lancaster University study indicates may affect up to 6 per cent of the British population. Most of us have been conditioned to see shopping 'as an everyday activity'. But what are we trying to buy?
Slo Joe's, on Lakeside's Level 3, sells drinks accessories. For pounds 4.99 you can buy moulds to make ice cubes shaped like tractors, alligators, dinosaurs and dolphins. For pounds 2.99 there are Crazy Glasses straws - plastic spectacles that conduct liquid behind your ears, round the eyes, down the nose and into the mouth.
The C2 skilled manual worker might buy a tractor-shaped ice cube. Mr Lucas prefers the C1s and C2s to the professional and managerial ABs as shoppers because they are freer spenders.
According to Paul Ekins, a leading green economist, shopping is a symptom of a society suffering social breakdown and spiritual vacuum. 'If people feel unease about something, they consume things. Shopping malls are an expression of a similar disorder.'
Mr Lucas says that 10 Lakesides would represent Britain's capacity. Why? 'Morally I think there should be a limit.' Morally? Mr Lucas has visited the US and seen how out-of-town malls have reduced city centres such as Washington to depopulated ghettos. Lakeside has already stolen a House of Fraser store from Basildon and a Marks & Spencer from Grays.
Back in their huddle, the Rickmansworth pensioners can't remember shopping being an art when they were young. 'People wouldn't have believed you would ever be able to do your shopping like this, under cover,' said Mr Ward. Dora East, 72, agreed. 'But you do get a bit carried away,' she added.
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