Time is right to consider a consumer diet
Half of us plan to lay off the booze this month, while the other half want to lose weight. After an obscene, belt-straining holiday gorge-athon, personally I’m aiming for both. When you combine the communal Christmas aftershock with that niggling the-future-is-upon-us tickle of a new calendar year, what you get is January — a perfect storm for hawkers of juicers, gym memberships and jogging shoes.
What few seem to be laying off is shopping. In London this week, Regent Street, Oxford Street and Bond Street have been absolutely teeming, as dense with people as they ever get, even their deepest pavements spilling over with shifting rivers of shoppers. Shopping centres across the land are reporting a similar rush to retail.
The sales are on, so this makes sense: bagging a bargain lends the pleasure of shopping an especial piquancy. What does seem a little odd, however, is that the pre-Christmas prerogative to buy, buy, buy — or to give, give, give — generates scarcely the whiff of a hangover-induced period of abstinence. Even on Christmas Day, when the bricks-and-mortar shops have their once-yearly moment of darkness, Britons made 114 million visits to retail websites for a spot of recreational browsing and buying.
The first-ever “mall” had 150 covered shops, was designed by Apollodorus of Damascus, and opened in Trajan’s Forum, Rome, in AD112 (a factoid I filched from a small boy’s Christmas-stocking copy of Guinness World Records). Whether it’s La Galleria in Milan, GUM in Moscow, the Dubai Mall (the world’s biggest, thanks Guinness), many of the world’s most impressive, comfortable, and cosmopolitan communal spaces are given over to centres of shopping.
That’s not just because shopping generates fat profits for the stores and their landlords — it’s because we, the consumers, love doing it. And why not? With such an enormous amount of human ingenuity now given over to making interesting things and then offering them for sale in interesting places, it would seem churlish not to have a browse.
There is, however, much to be said for saving money.
And the best way to do that isn’t necessarily to get up at 4 a.m. to be first in line at the sales. In fact, I’ve accidentally hit upon a method that allows you to revel in all the pleasures of recreational shopping, with far less of the financial pain. For a few years now, part of my job has been to inspect very nice things, mostly clothes. At first, anything I loved, or even vaguely liked, I wanted to have. Much of it — including too many pairs of beautifully burnished shoes — I got. Having only ever really gone shopping to buy things, I was helplessly in thrall to impulse. Soon my heaving Ikea wardrobe looked as healthy as the liver of a French goose, and my family was agitating for a border clampdown. Yet temptation, through work, was unavoidable.
So now I try to trawl the shops and fashion-house showrooms with the mindset of a birder, rather than a big-game hunter. Should that rare bird, something much more marvellous than “meh,” appear in front of me, I feel it, try it on, note down its details, admire it, and then walk away. If something really pulls, I’ll come back for another visit — but take it home? Hardly ever.
When Coco Chanel counselled that “elegance is refusal,” she probably wasn’t urging her customers to spend time enjoying her boutiques while resisting their very raison d’être: to induce the urge to buy her clothes, bags and perfumes. Nonetheless Chanel’s ascetic adage applies nicely to 21st-century shopping. The higher you set your personal bar for any object’s acquisition, the better dressed and better off you will be. The more time spent inspecting something before you buy it, the less time spent regretting it — or returning it — once bought. The height of that bar shouldn’t, though, equate to the object’s expense or label.
After all, there is far more overpriced garbage in the shops than there are supremely made steals.
Not spending the money, though, makes the “what could have been” twinge of leaving the object of desire lonely on the hanger, feel almost like a victory. And how lovely, later, to avoid the defeat of realizing that an item purchased in some wanton haze of shop-floor excitement is something you didn’t really want — and certainly never needed — after all.
Post-holiday shoppers indiscriminately grab up bargains — maybe not giving in to consumer impulse is more gratifying than buying. -