The Changing Face of Consumerism XI: Back Down on the Street, or, Going for Bust

So a mere matter of days after my last piece on the struggling high street, I woke up this morning to more news of high street stores experiencing a drop in like-for-like sales in comparison to the same time last year, with HMV delivering particularly disappointing figures marked by sales being down 8.2% in December 2010. It is disappointing, too. Of the bigger chain music stores, I always preferred HMV (although Andy’s records had the edge for a while both in terms of pricing and range). First and foremost, they carried a broader selection with less mainstream releases sitting alongside the chart material. And, while a tad pricey, their range of back-catalogue titles was far superior to Overprice / Virgin.

But rather than work to their strengths and make a virtue of their difference, HMV followed the template of its competitors and having killed off the (albeit limited) vinyl section in favour of calendars and games, continued over a lengthy period of time to reduce the music stock – to make room for more games, DVDs and gadgetry. When the music occupies the smallest portion of a music retailer’s floor space, you have to ask questions. HMV’s struggling is an example of how diversification can be counterproductive, and rather than appealing to a broader customer base, can serve to alienate the one already established. How can a music retailer seriously expect to compete in other markets already dominated by specialists. More often than not, gamers will head to somewhere like Game for games, just as you’d probably go to a clothes shop for clothes, a bookstore for books, an electrical store for electrical goods – unless, of course, they go to the supermarket for the whole lot. After a while, I stopped asking questions and also stopped going in, because each time I did I found myself leaving empty-handed and frustrated because they never had the title I was after in stock. I’d invariably end up purchasing my music on-line because I couldn’t source it anywhere else.

I don’t for a second mean to suggest that I’m responsible for HMV’s declining sales (and I certainly played no part La Senza, the purveyors of slinky lingerie, being called into administration with a loss of 1,300 jobs, prompting headlines such as ‘Lingerie firm goes bust’ etc.), but while my musical tastes may be ‘minority’, there are many other minorities just like me, and collectively, they represent a substantial market.

As mentioned in passing in my previous piece, it’s not just music that I have problems tracking down, and it’s not always obscure items I struggle to find in shops either. As if to prove the point, only this week I decided I wanted to get a desk lamp. As my desk also happens to be the dining table and space is of a premium, I figured a desk lamp that clamps onto the shelves to the side of the table would be the best bet. But could I find one anywhere? Working out of time, my choices on a lunchtime were limited, but there is an Argos superstore and BHS Home Store (yes, British Home Stores Home Store) which specialises in goods for the, er, home, rather than home and clothing. A quarter of the store is given to a lighting department, but unless I wanted a lime-green desk-lamp with a regular base I was out of luck. That is, unless I wanted a ludicrously glitzy lamp shade with dangling glass bits all over it, which I most certainly didn’t. Argos carry a much more substantial range of desk lights, from bendy to angle-poise, but the only clamping ones are LED lamps, which just don’t give off enough light. I’d still need to put on the main ceiling light to see my screen, which defeats the purpose of a desk light I can angle in my corner without illuminating the whole room. Really, how hard can it be to find a simple item like a clamp-fitting desk lamp that takes a proper, regular bulb?

The answer is that it’s not hard at all. Five minutes on-line and I found I was spoiled for choice. Even so, on-line shopping is no substitute for real shopping as it’s often hard to get a sense of the precise dimensions or appearance of an item – you can’t ‘feel the quality’ from a description and photo, however detailed. Thankfully, it transpired that a local independent store I pass on my way through town after work had the best selection of all. Once again, hooray for the independents!

 

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A clip-on desk lamp, earlier today

 

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…. And the Point Is…?

I’ve never really been big on computer games. When I was a child, there weren’t any. Not really. I was seven then the first Spectrums came onto the market, and no-one I knew had one. Home computing was simply not mass-market in the way it is today. My sister, five years my junior, got a second-hand one, and while I spent the occasional half hour playing flight simulation games, I much referred, well, most other activities. Reading, drawing, making things. I even used to play sports, despite being hopelessly crap at all of them. I liked being outdoors, although preferred quiet, indoor solo pursuits. So why didn’t gaming appeal? I suppose I couldn’t really see the point. It didn’t feed my imagination like reading, wasn’t productive like art.

I did, much later, while at university, discover the joys of Mario Kart, and purchased a second-hand N64. The other games that came with it, I didn’t dig. FIFA Soccer was really difficult to play, and Goldeneye gave me motion sickness. It didn’t help that I’d keep dropping my weapons and spend half the game bitchslapping my assailants.

I did also waste many hours playing Jimmy White’s Whirlwind Snooker and a game called Ascendancy in the mid-late nineties, particularly during a fortnight-long bout of very heavy flu. I couldn’t leave the house, had no energy, there was nothing on television and so I sat, in my dressing gown, playing computer games.

When I began writing seriously, I found that all of my spare time – and even time that wasn’t spare – and all of my energy was occupied with the outpouring and arrangement and rearrangement of words. I soon forgot about playing games on the computer. I had a better use for it, and it was impossible to do the two things at once. Gaming very soon struck me as a terrible waste of time: there was nothing remotely constructive about it, and ultimately, it was not particularly rewarding.

Sitting at work the last few weeks – well I have to pay the bills somehow – I’ve been bored half to death by a couple of guys who sit nearby, talking endlessly about computer games. Well, specifically, console games. Having both rushed out to purchase the latest version of FIFA Soccer, they’ve begun arriving at work and recounting the games they’ve played in the minutest of details. The sliding tackles, the headers, the goals, the fine tuning alterations they’ve made to their players strength, weight and agility ratings, comparing notes and exchanging advice on how to improve their rankings.

I couldn’t care less about football to begin with. Actually, that’s not true: if there’s one thing I care less about than football, it’s fantasy football leagues, and if there’s one thing I care less about than either of those things, it’s virtual football.

More recently, the morning’s topic of conversation was different. The two mind-numbingly obsessive gamers sounded like they’d taken a night off gaming to look at cars. For three hours straight they discussed the different dealerships they’d seen and what cars, makes and models they were each stocking. From the sound of it, they’d even test-driven a few cars, detailing to nth degree the BHP of each vehicle, the handling, the brakes, the overall performance, and what upgrades might be done to improve aspects of the performance. Christ, it was tedious, but a made a change from the usual gaming bollocks. Their moronism remained unchallenged as one bragged about taking a corner at 70mph, while the other boasted of pulling off a risky move to overtake (or ‘take over,’ as he put it) another vehicle. Dangers to society they may be, but at least they’d left the house. Or so I had thought, until I eventually discovered that they had both left work the night before and headed straight to purchase the eagerly-anticipated new version of Gran Turismo, released that very day, and had proceeded to stay up until after 2am playing the game, trying out the different cars.

Picking my jaw off the floor, I began to wrestle with the levels of pathetic non-existence these guys are clearly scaling on a nightly basis. They’re actually reasonably popular, and have more friends than I do. Friends who stop by their desks, email, phone and text them… usually to discuss football and gaming, but still. By contrast, I go out several nights a week, either with company or without, to pubs, gigs, comedy and spoken word events. Meanwhile, they stay in six nights a week, are ‘too busy’ for social networking because it interferes with their gaming and football watching. I contribute in my own small way to the world with my reviews, my writing and so on. And yet it’s rare for people to stop by my desk, email, phone or text me to discuss music or literature or the state of the world. I’m not actually complaining, but, well, how can this be?

More saliently, how can these people – who seemingly represent the majority, and are thus considered to be fully functional participants in society – not realise that their behaviours are unfeasibly sad? Do they not miss real life? Or even the interaction that social networking and on-line chat facilities afford, which can often provide a fair substitute, while offering the means of connecting with like-minded individuals who may not reside locally, or even in the same country? Surely these are not only more useful, but more exciting applications of technology? Or could it be that virtual life, as represented by gaming, has evolved to replicate the reality so well that reality, with its inconveniences and unpredictable elements, seems like a rather poor second?

This seems to be a very real possibility. For a start, one of the gaming buffs actually drives. I mean properly, a real car. He goes places in it. He then drives the same vehicle while playing ‘GT’, and apparently, it’s amazing how realistic the handling is. His virtual car is just like the real thing! Ok, but to me, that sounds very much like going home from work to play a game where I do my day job, only without getting paid for it.

In recent months, the ad breaks on television have been taken over by plugs for the latest Wii games and controls, the X-Box Kinect (what’s with the ridiculous spelling?) and the ‘brain training’ games for the Nintendo DS. All very commendable: they’re actually helping the nation to get fit and for idiots to sharpen up and be slightly less retarded, and even helping the elderly fend off Alzheimer’s by keeping their minds occupied. Brilliant! But aren’t they simply providing so-called ‘solutions’ to problems they perpetuated in the first instance? Much like McDonald’s adding healthy options to the menu, it’s a win-win situation for them, and while such steps could be seen as a positive move made as a response to the enormous backlash, they’re certainly not doing it because they’re philanthropically motivated.

Putting to one side for now the suggestion that these innovations are nothing to do with the nation’s wellbeing and are instead merely new ways of making vast quantities of money by tapping into the zeitgeist and the widespread paranoia concerning our collective health, there remains one glaringly obvious question: why? As in, why the need for all of these things that replicate that which already exists? So, there are puzzles and crosswords and Sudoku and the like on the DS, are there? Ok, so why the need for a digital version? The originals were perfectly adequate and have been around for a long time. When did you last hear someone on a train or sitting at a bus-stop complaining that the battery had run out on their pack of cards, or that the screen on their word-search had broken while in their pocket?

The same arguments are equally applicable to the Kindle. ‘But it’s just like a book! You can turn the pages just like a real book! And no trees died to make a Kindle!’ the device’s advocates proclaim with glee. A book is also like a real book. You can turn the pages of a book just like a real book, too. Because it is a real book. And once manufactured, a book requires no power and is a lot easier to reuse and recycle than a Kindle. There will be ancient, leather-bound tomes in existence centuries after the Kindle has been extinguished and superseded, we can be sure of that.

Some will no doubt accuse me of churlishness, and argue that I should be pleased that there are now devices in so many households that encourage fat kids to do aerobics, to run, jump, dance and swim. Ok, but whatever happened to actually doing real aerobics, running, dancing, swimming? Football, cricket… Look, I hate to put a damper on things, but it’s all just another fad. Rubik’s Cubes were great brain-trainers and Space Hoppers made people bounce around, and outside, too. Ok, so it was safe to go outside back in the 80s, before paedophiles had been invented, but really, where’s the perspective here? How can virtual sports, sports simulations, be as good on any level as real sports? I’m speaking as someone who hates sports, and was rubbish at sport as a child. But I still got out there, and I still walk between places now. It’s free, and it’s a way of incorporating exercise into my daily routine. Believe me, it’s not difficult. It makes a lot more sense than driving to the takeaway for my tea, then coming home to play a virtual cooking game, followed by a game where I can pretend to drive the same car I just got out of round a digital replica of real streets, before finally moving on to a game where I walk on the spot, encouraged by a digital replica of a real-life personal trainer or celebrity.

What’s next, I wonder? I can just about see the point of The Sims, but lately it’s all become a bit too, well, realistic in its detail. Your characters have to interact and go shopping to remain happy and healthy, and you need to empty the bins and so on. And then of course there’s Second Life, where you live out an alternative life in the virtual world. How far will it go? Will people experience virtual (or real) depression when they are made virtually redundant from their virtual jobs that are so realistic you feel like you really could be in the office, shuffling papers and taking calls from complaining customers? Having been virtually sacked, you lose contact with all of your virtual friends, run out of virtual money, fall behind on the virtual rent and find yourself on the virtual streets… you’re so down you’re contemplating suicide and accidentally kill your real self because you’ve lost the ability to differentiate.

Real life may be grim at times, but replicating it is surely the most pointless of all things. Whatever happened to using one’s leisure time constructively, productively, or even  indulging in a spot of escapism? After all, escapism doesn’t have to be mindless, and surely even mindless escapism has to be better than mindless realism and living in a mind-draining facsimile of real life.

 

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk