Mary Dejevsky: Bargain-hunting will be the death of us

We are fast-tracking back to the mentality that treats price as everything

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What was it like for you last weekend – I have in mind the shopping. Were the crowds so dense that you were pushed off the kerb into the traffic? Were you wandering around the shop looking for an assistant? Did you have to wait in an interminable queue to pay?

Maybe you were, but I wasn't – and not because I had hyper-efficiently done the shopping already. In fact, I committed what in past years would have been the reckless folly of taking the bus to London's Oxford Street on the last Saturday before Christmas.

Believe me, it was a delight. The buses positively sped up and down Regent Street. There was plenty of room to walk on the pavements, without bumping into even those errant humanoids accoutred with i-Pods. The assistants in one store – with smart sashes proclaiming their readiness to help – had nothing better to do than advise me. And I hardly had time to get my purse out before someone on the till shouted, "Next, please".

As I say, it was a delight. But I mean this in strictly buying terms. In other terms – selling, say – it felt a little sad. Yes, the festive lights came on; yes, there were piped carols, and charity volunteers shook their tins. But on the last weekend before Christmas so much calm should not prevail.

What I missed most of all, though, was the sense of shopping as a two-way process. The shops of developed capitalism are a few notches above the oriental bazaar in that you are relieved of the obligation to haggle, but essentially it is the same idea: your purchase is someone else's livelihood. The deal must satisfy both.

This Christmas, the odds are stacked against the traders to an astonishing degree. You don't have to patronise a blighted Woolies to find special offers and even full-blown sales at every turn. Display windows that should be stylish showpieces are disfigured with big red Sale notices. Even if the actual reductions are not quite as advertised, the impression is of a mass distress sale. But even at these prices the throngs are staying away.

Now there may be many reasons for the unseasonal quiet that has descended on commerce. London-specific is the recent opening of Europe's biggest covered shopping mall at White City. Perhaps the preference of many families for out-of-town venues with car parking is costing city centres more business than before, especially now petrol prices are down again. Perhaps some prescient people, fearing penury, completed their shopping extra-early. Then there is the Internet. The number of delivery vans buzzing around suggests more Web-shopping this year, but clarity will only come with the release of sales figures.

So far, official statistics suggest, sales have held up well. Figures for November showed a small increase over October, and a bigger rise compared with November the previous year. The British consumer, the Office for National Statistics found – somewhat to the Government's surprise – has carried on shopping regardless.

Traders are sceptical, suspecting, perhaps, some ministerial ruse to keep the nation's pecker up, or, in official- speak, to sustain consumer confidence. Even if the figures are correct, however, sales are only part of the picture. Without figures for price and profit, the information they impart is limited. The point is that invariably, when people do buy this year, the deal is embarrassingly one-sided. It is as though the whole country is being hawked around at a knockdown price, worth so little that ministers are pretty much begging us to take it off their hands.

And while such a state of affairs may help this year's hard-pressed shoppers – those who are already feeling, or merely anticipating, what is euphemistically called the "downturn" – it holds dangers that could imperil the functioning of our market for years to come. To be always in search of a "good deal" and reluctant to buy anything at its full price is to risk breaking all rational links between value and price.

British shoppers have long been more like Americans than their Continental European counterparts in their keenness for a bargain. When Napoleon dismissed England as a nation of shopkeepers, he was also disparaging its shoppers. Where Americans and Britons might boast about how much their new coat or fine wine was discounted, French, Germans or Italians would more readily judge their purchases by a notional ratio between quality and price. They accept a direct relationship between quality and price, and will pay more for something better. They do not regard this as being "ripped off" but as fair – and as an expression of respect for the producer.

In recent years it has been possible to detect the dawning of such an attitude here, albeit with a slightly different emphasis. Where the French have the specific brand, the specific farm and the specific vineyard they trust, we embraced the Fair Trade movement that took an interest in pay and working conditions in the product's country of origin, and the "slow food" movement that took issue with instant everything.

Concern about "food miles" encouraged supermarkets to stock local produce (the Continentals, you might argue, didn't need persuading). Criticism of hugely wasteful multiple deals in supermarkets convinced some traders to change their ways. For some, an increased sense of financial security brought with it a new quest for quality, style and authenticity.

My experience of shopping this Christmas suggests that we are fast-tracking back to the mentality that treats price as everything. Value is measured by the maximum amount you can cram into your bag for the minimum number of pounds. While our European friends regard cheap goods as necessary in straitened circumstances, we see cheapness as a virtue in itself and evidence of savvy dealing. Like Americans, we will be condemned to live in the land of the permanent (and deceptive) discount.

Meanwhile, I offer two explanations for the sparse crowds out last Saturday. Either they are waiting for even lower prices, or they have decided, not unreasonably, that the thriftiest behaviour is not to shop at all. Neither is good news for the economy.

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