Out of America: Celebrating freedom to shop till you drop

WASHINGTON - America is a nation of shoppers. Not even the Fourth of July offers a let-up in this national pastime. Last Sunday this British citizen attended the celebrations at the small community of Waynewood, across the river in Virginia. The local fire-engine led a ramshackle, anarchic parade, mostly of children. There were floats, fairground entertainments, much consumption of cola and hotdogs. Not an effigy of evil King George or any other vanquished colonial oppressor was to be seen. But then, at least if the Washington Post was any guide, the real action was elsewhere.

'Decoration of Independence' screamed the advertisement for a 4 July sale at a local furniture store. 'We're blowing away the competition,' proclaimed a Virginia Chrysler dealer in a full-page ad, complete with what must be one of 1993's most mendacious come-ons: 'July 4 Savings Special] All New Cars Just dollars 29.' You name the store, it was touting that day's super-sale. Forget the oompahs, the fireworks, and Bill Clinton ringing the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia: the country was being softened up for what it likes best - to shop till you drop.

Such practices may soon be a thing of the past. After the 1776 revolution, the industrial revolution, and the communications revolution, welcome to the television shopping revolution. In a few years, an American may not have to stir from his or her couch to indulge in bargain- hunting. If you are a cable subscriber in Washington DC, you can pick up more than 60 channels. Several use the commercial breaks to tout special offers available only by direct order - home fitness-machines and cut-price CDs of ageing crooners from the Fifties and Sixties. The local DC Cablevision offers QVC, one of the country's two 24- hour shopping channels. For the time being, QVC and the rival Home Shopping Network are small beer. Each generates around dollars 1bn ( pounds 0.66bn) of sales, drops in the ocean of total annual US consumer spending of close on dollars 4 trillion. But the trend is plain enough.

Once advertisements were a tiresome distraction between segments of a programme you wanted to watch. Now the programmes are the commercials. The irritating interludes are a few local news announcements put on to meet government requirements of 'public interest'. The other day, the shopping channels won a huge legal victory when the Federal Communications Commission, the government regulator of television and radio, ruled that local cable companies must carry the shopping channels free of charge. Small wonder that Sears Roebuck hauled up the white flag in January with the announcement that it would discontinue the catalogue that for decades brought city shopping to small-town America. Such are the sad casualties of revolution.

But where Sears has withdrawn, others have advanced. Saks Fifth Avenue plans to use QVC to sell its up-market clothes. Bloomingdales, another troubled chain-store dinosaur, is wondering whether to follow suit. Last month came the real bombshell: Macy's, which has lately been operating under the protection of the federal bankruptcy laws, said that from autumn 1994 it would operate its own round-the-clock cable shopping channel. To help, Macy's has called upon the services of Don Hewitt, executive producer of CBS's 60 Minutes, the most popular programme on US television. He plans sets that will look like real store departments, with appearances by designers touting their latest creations.

Whether the effort will save Macy's is another matter. But certainly it is the shape of the future. Around the corner waits the wonderful world of 'interactive' television: the set will be a two-way visual telephone, offering not 60 but 500 channels, on which you can call up services of every kind. America will still go on celebrating the Fourth of July. But if everyone shuns the parade to monitor the sales on TV it won't be much of a holiday.

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