Ever worked in a shop in the run-up to Christmas? By the time you get to December 1, Advent Calendar day, when most people accept it’s OK to talk and think about Christmas, the humble shop assistant is so sick of tinsel, fairy lights and tunnel-visioned shoppers that they’re ready stab the next colleague to put on Slade or bloody Bing Crosby.
Working near London’s Oxford Circus, one can’t fail to be caught up in the mounting frenzy as Christmas looms. Considering the lights went up before Halloween, that’s hardly surprising. It’s all a little scary.
The febrile atmosphere inside stores; the merry menace from drunks, tourists and pickpockets; the one-step-away-from-mutiny mood when they close the tube station for safety reasons (every night) - are all bad enough. But, the truly scary sight is the cold, dead eyes of the shoppers themselves.
Small wonder then that “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” have become such “things”. Yes, they are the latest examples of the Americanisation of British cultural life, but they are also a reflection of how the digital revolution is belatedly improving shopping.
That may seem odd, given the ubiquitous success of Amazon and the Apple online store, but this really is the first year that I’ve heard absolutely everyone I know talking about shopping for discounts online.
In theory it’s a great leveller. The experience of shopping on Currys’ website could be as consumer-friendly as John Lewis. In theory. Anyone in that queue just to get online at Currys on Friday, or any of the other retailers that “crashed” may have a more jaundiced view. Watching the onscreen wheel go round and round is the digital version of the interminable TopShop queue. At least at home you can sit down, have a cuppa and do something else while you wait.
What’s been really hateful over the past few days is the sneering: look at the pitiful people queuing at midnight to scrap over a Blaupunkt television; or the poor folk fighting in Tesco’s. There were nearly as many journalists filming the largely black, young male line around three blocks at NikeTown as there were people queueing.
Shopping has always been socially divisive - just watch ITV’s Mr Selfridge. Brits can turn any subject into class warfare. But, these past few days news cameras have turned Christmas shopping into a new reality series: I’m A Poor Person Christmas Shopping, Get Me Out Of Here!
The media can bang on about crass commercialism, the loss of the meaning of Christmas, greed unseating Godliness, but too many economic, cultural and social forces are afoot to put the shopping genie back in its lamp. All most people want is to find ways of giving their families nice things. Consumerist? Yes. Selfish? Arguably.
Could they be doing other, more “improving” middle-class things like a nice family bike ride, or baking foccacia bread together? Oh, sure. But, do they deserve to be laughed at?
So, how about we reflect on how sneering at the poor became a national pastime, and stuff our judgemental faces with an early mince pie instead? And, now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to shop on The White Company website. It’s 20 per cent off, you know. But, remember, it’s only a bargain if you were already going to buy.
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