'The only individual empowerment in a capitalist society,' I am told by a terrifyingly brilliant advertising executive, 'is to spend. However, that transaction must be extended temporally and appear to be an act of volition - so shopping becomes a sustained and pleasurable deferment of purchase, an experience sufficiently satisfying that it promises certain reward but can never be complete.'
Shopping, in other words, is not buying things, it is doing something and it is something we are doing with unprecedented energy and devotion. The British have, over the past 30 years, doubled the time they devote to shopping, according to Professor Jonathan Gershuny, of Essex University. It used to be an average of 20 minutes a day, now it is 40.
Perhaps this is because there is more to buy, but Professor Gershuny does not give much weight to this explanation. The real reason, he thinks, is that retailers have been pushing distribution costs on to their customers.
Once local grocers might have smiled, provided personal service, delivered and so on; now the supermarkets expect you to drive to awkward locations, find and collect your own purchases, lift them on to the counter for the price to be read, lift them back into your trolley and wheel them out to the car. This takes much longer, makes you buy more and spend more time and money on travelling, and rots whatever is left of your soul. 'We have lost,' says the professor, with wistful understatement, 'the quality of interaction.'
On the other hand - and the more time Professor Gershuny spends in Essex, the more vividly this will become apparent to him - modern shopping is our only communally agreed path to salvation. It is what, as a culture, we do to define and transcend ourselves.
The most vivid celebration of this faith is the way we have turned previously under-determined places like Gateshead, Thurrock, Sheffield or Dudley into real cities by building cathedrals called malls. The religious parallel is precise and detailed: these malls have naves, aisles, triforia, clerestories, cruciform plans and holy water features. Here, through shopping, we seek out 'value', apply the moral code of consumerism and aspire to a better life. We can, we are told, become 'good shoppers'. We even accept the implicit superstition by throwing pennies into fibreglass fountains, as if we were in Rome.
But, as well as being churches, the malls are self-contained places with a private geography. In London, one of them calls itself a 'shopping city' and many of them ape the historic manners of the towns whose identities they threaten. The Metro Centre in Gateshead, for example, includes a town square, a Roman forum and a Mediterranean village, all weirdly and terribly convincing. Indeed, the Metro Centre as a whole has such full-blooded, dramatic flare and local success that I still think, as I suggested some years ago, that the traditionally peripatetic remains of St Cuthbert should be moved there from nearby Durham Cathedral.
In response, the threatened towns turn themselves into outdoor malls. Visiting a town now means shopping there. A visit to anything else - museum, theme park, stately home, real cathedral - would be meaningless without a visit to the attached shops, established to remind us where we have just been, with themed pencils and mnemonic oven gloves - ersatz relics and indulgences - as a way of forcing the spending decision.
'Our experience of the world,' says my advertising man, 'is now limited to that of consumption, our aesthetic does not engage at the level of inspiration or empathy.'
But there is a real conflict between shopping as religious rite and the underlying commercial reality. Consider the recent, shocking Affaire Bottomley in which it emerged that Marks & Spencer had opened specially so that the Health Secretary could shop there alone. Subsequently it transpired that the store did the same for Baroness Thatcher.
The shock resulted from the fact that M & S was thought to be an entirely public place, a shopping shrine. This exclusiveness in such a place was perceived as corruption, injustice. But of course, M & S can do what it likes. The rite of the shop is in private hands; only the immaterial, generalised faith really belongs to us.
Two conspiracies are afoot to transform all this. First, QVC, the satellite television shopping channel, supposedly represents a prelude to a fully electronic shopping system that will not require us to leave home if we wish to buy diamante ear-rings or pewter tankards - two QVC favourites. In such a system, shop assistants are no longer required; only specialised ear or hand models to stroke and clutch in silence for 10 minutes or more while the calls and credit-card numbers come in and the hustlers - usually English, even on American shopping channels - coo and shriek.
Second, the company Costco has received planning clearance, in spite of opposition from the supermarket groups, to open in, yes, Thurrock, Essex, now rapidly becoming the Canterbury or Rome of the shopping church. Costco is an American warehouse shopping club that will massively undercut the prices of the existing supermarkets by reducing service to a minimum and selling in bulk. Indeed, it will be so cheap that small shopkeepers will use it as a supplier - in effect, we will be paying our corner shops to shop for us at Costco.
The warehouse idea represents the logical conclusion of Professor Gershuny's process of loading all the effort on to the customers and avoiding all human interaction. Forecasts, based on the dubious but popular assumption that all trends go on for ever, suggest that there could be 30 such warehouses in Britain within 10 years.
Yet both these ventures are profoundly offensive to the faith, in that, like Mrs Bottomley's expedition, they draw crude and vulgar attention to the usually hidden commercial reality of shopping rather than to the fiction of virtue and communality. For the whole point of shopping, as my advertising friend pointed out, is that it is not simply buying. In fact, the conclusive purchasing transaction is the collapse of the rite, it represents a kind of failure.
This deferment becomes consumerist virtue when it is called 'shopping around' for the best buy. Consumerism, like healthy eating, is a moral system built upon consumption. Costco will only work here if it can convince the lower-middle and middle classes that shopping there is a virtuous thing to do. It will work, in other words, if loading up the Discovery at Costco is understood to be respectable rather than trashy. The task of Sainsbury's, therefore, is to appear even more sanctimoniously grand in its advertising than it does already.
The poor do not matter in this context since getting to Costco, joining and buying in bulk require cash up front. The British version of the American 'vest and six-pack' crowd will still go to Kwik Save or pay pathetically over the odds at the corner shop.
QVC, meanwhile, can have only limited success because it abandons the public, self-defining process completely. Owning a pewter tankard is a pallid satisfaction next to shopping around for one or staring at yourself on a television screen in a Dixons window display.
The general point is that any reduction of the role of shopping in the culture has become almost inconceivable. It has become a consoling, virtuous activity. It has even transformed political conceptions of economic virtue. Saving was regarded as the backbone of the sensible, good-housekeeping economy. Look at Japan, we were told, they save as if their lives depended on it. But now, it turns out, because we are bad exporters we need a buoyant home market to sustain the economy. Shopping is suddenly good for Britain.
One theory suggests that popular social history has become shopping history, dominated not by politics or great macro-social change but by retail issues like the demise of the Co-op or questions such as whatever happened to Timothy Whites? People remember what they could buy, not what they were or did. Inflation - as in stories involving 20 Woodbines and ending 'and still have change out of half a crown' - rather than events becomes the index of passing time. The modern insistence on design-as-art is really just an aestheticisation of shopping.
In the Eighties there were shopaholics, and a triumphant materialism used to advise people to 'shop till you drop' as a kind of wryly healthy antidote to the anxieties of the inner life. Now both the condition and the motto have a more fateful ring as it becomes clear that we are all infected with shopaholism and, until we drop, there is nothing else to do but shop.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies