The Changing Face of Consumerism X: Down on the Street

Only just a few days into January and already the sales reports from the high street are beginning to filter through for the run-up to Christmas. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone will be surprised by the fact that broadly, sales have been rather poor and substantially weaker than hoped, and that as a percentage of retail sales, online transactions account for a larger proportion than ever before.

Sky News report, ‘There is one factor common to the trading statements from Next and John Lewis – an increase in online sales that has propped up the overall results.’

The on-line article continues, ‘In the case of Next, it’s [sic] Directory service recorded a 16% increase between 2010 and 2011 for like-for-like sales. Sky News has been told that online sales account for roughly 90% of this figure. With regards to John Lewis, online sales for the five weeks to December 31, 2011, were 27.9% up on last year.’

Apart from exemplifying the kind of statistically-dense reporting that’s likely to bamboozle the average reader and providing a practical demonstration in the kind of journalism that uses a proliferation of numbers in lieu of meaningful analysis, what we are supposed to extrapolate from this is that the figures speak for themselves. Of course, this is patently untrue, because the figures, bald and devoid of context are in themselves virtually meaningless. The scant analysis offered by the unnamed reporter does little to shed any real light on the implications of the figures when they ask ‘What can we learn from this? Well essentially that we, as shoppers, are inherently lazy and becoming increasingly more so,’ adding ‘There is nothing wrong with that. If we can shop without leaving our desk or home then we are choosing to do so.’ Really? There’s a lot wrong with being inherently lazy, on so many levels, but of more importance here is the fact that shopping from one’s desk (something many employers would surely disapprove of, and which could constitute misuse / abuse of company systems) or home does not necessarily equate to being lazy. I would contend that lethargy has nothing to do with it, and that the laziness of consumers is nothing in comparison to the laziness of the journalists proffering such poorly-considered evaluations of the ‘facts’.

For starters, the article fails to take into account the fundamental fact that high-street (or out of town) shopping – real-life shopping – is hell. Never mind, as was mentioned in the BBC’s TV report, that the opening hours of high-street retail outlets are both limited and limiting, and that on-line shopping affords the convenience of 24/7 open hours, which are handy for those who work sociable hours (I say this because those work work anti-social hours aren’t stuck in an office or other place of work between the hours 9am and 5pm, when shops are open, and if you’ve ever tried to do any serious shopping within the confines of a lunch hour Monday to Friday, you’ll appreciate that it’s not only nigh on impossible, but more hellish than Beelzebub’s oven).

Discounting the Sartrean hell that is other people momentarily, there’s the fact that comparing the prices different retailers charge for the same item is considerably more straightforward and less time-consuming on-line than on foot. And of course, time is money, supposedly. Undoubtedly, that time is the most precious commodity an individual can have is part and parcel of the hectic technology-driven lifestyles that facilitate both on-line shopping and global commerce. If workers do spent time at their desks shopping on-line, it could be that they’re time-wasting skivers, but could just as readily be because they’re too busy to take a proper lunch break in which to hit the shops, which have probably relocated to an out-of-town shopping precinct.

According to the Sky article, ‘The trick for retailers is how best to facilitate that and how they combine an online store with their high street shops whilst keeping both profitable.’ No kidding. By making your presence as a business prominent via the most channels available, with particular emphasis on those where the most customers are, then you’ll fare better than if you don’t. The adage ‘Location, Location, Location’ still has merit, and applies to the virtual world too. As for keeping outlets profitable, that’s surely how business works, period.

Sky’s report concludes with the observation that ‘Both Next and John Lewis know their customer base well and play to it with success’ (fine, except according to the figures, Next’s overall sales are only fractionally up, and its high street sales have dropped dramatically, a point that provided the focus of The Guardian’s reporting of the same information, with Zoe Wood writing, ‘Analysts estimated that like-for-like sales in Next stores fell more than 5% in the last two months of the year, resulting in a worse than expected 2.7% decline for the six months to 24 December. That weakness was offset by a strong performance at home shopping arm Directory, where sales jumped nearly 17%. Together the divisions delivered growth of 3.1% which was in line with guidance given to analysts in November’).

The reporter ends their piece by opining that ‘Retail is Darwinian, the survival of the fittest. Success and survival comes to those who change and adapt. The old adage is the true: the customer is always right.’ This is blatantly untrue, and blindly propagates the myth that markets are consumer driven. As I have bemoaned variously, I feel largely uncatered for as a consumer. It’s not even the obscure items, that I would expect having difficulty with, that present the biggest problems. If I want something unusual, there are niche stores – granted, usually on-line – that stock them. I’m talking about specific books, records, storage solutions, brand footwear at prices I’m willing to afford (£95 for a pair of DM Chelsea boots is obscene however you look at it) homebrewing equipment and other such items. But try finding something simple, like decent oven mitts, a ceiling-mounting light for the bathroom designed to work with a fitting that runs in conjunction with the wiring for an extractor fan, jam jars, etc., and you’ll probably struggle. I can’t be the only one seeking these items, and can therefore only conclude that others make do with whatever alternatives and close matches are readily available. How does this indicate a market tailored to the consumer?

Moreover, if I find myself making an increasing number of purchases on-line because I frequently return from town empty-handed, having been unable to find the specific item I was searching for, how is that an example of consumer lethargy? Again, by failing to cater for my needs, the high-street stores have failed their (potential) customers and driven them on-line. If retail is Darwinian, surely the survivors are the ones that stock the items that consumers actually want. After all, it’s only possible to convince people that they want what they get and that they don’t know what they want until they see it up to a point. If I need a new stylus for my turntable, it won’t do to tell me that vinyl’s outmoded and that I should get myself an iPod and docking station instead, and similarly, if the styli in stock aren’t compatible with my turntable, I won’t be buying one – or a new turntable for that matter, at least for as long as there are other stockists who carry compatible styli. It’s really not that hard.

High-street shopping is tiring and laborious. Some people love it and will spend days trailing round shops trying on shoes and clothes and all the rest. Yet even those than enjoy such shopping expeditions will often make their purchases on-line, not through lethargy but because of the price. No-one with half a brain is going to buy an item in one place they can purchase for a third less elsewhere, especially when they know it’s the item they want having already tried it on or out. On-line stores don’t have the overheads of physical stores: fact. They don’t have to pay out-front assistants, cleaners, heating, lighting, or, most significantly, rent on the floorspace. This is precisely why Amazon can undercut Waterstone’s and HMV so dramatically (and why HMV, with their Channel Islands based tax-loophole savvy on-line arm can undercut its own physical stores, a retail model also known as shooting oneself in the foot). Of course people are going to go and buy their goods on line for less. It’s simple economics.

Another piece of simple economics is that anything that isn’t growth is considered recession, but to expect endless growth is unrealistic. Sure, the world’s population may be continually expanding, but that doesn’t mean they all want to buy the same products. Certain markets have limited potential for expansion, even mainstream mass markets. Therefore, to declare ‘flat’ sales or lower than projected growth a complete disaster seems unreasonable. Yet many companies will lay off large numbers of their workforce in light of such ‘disappointing’ results, and blame the recession while contributing to it and exacerbating the problem further.

But perhaps the biggest major omission in these reports is that people aren’t spending because they simply don’t have the money. There’s a global financial crisis going on. The fact that the figures for Christmas 2011 correspond with those for 2008, only with the decreases in overall sales and the erring toward on-line sales more dramatic, reminds us that we’re still in a slump. The words ‘recession’ and ‘depression’ still hang over financial reports like a black cloud. Look at the most recent unemployment figures: they’re still on the up, not just in Britain, but in the US – and the US economy is the global economy.

Context counts, then, and against a backdrop of financial uncertainty, rising inflation, etc., etc., people are spending less money because they have less money. It’s interesting to note that these reports appear on the same day that homelessness charity Shelter made public the findings of a survey they had recently conducted, which revealed that one in seven Britons has turned to credit such as a payday loan or unauthorised overdraft to help cover their rent or mortgage in the last year. Surely this is all the evidence required to establish the reason behind reduced spending. I’ll say it again: people simply haven’t got the money. But then, perhaps they never did have the money. The difference now is that neither do the banks, and so they’re not lending it out. And if people can’t get credit, then they can’t spend the money they don’t have on things they don’t need. Better to spend the money they don’t have on the things they do need, like accommodation. It’s a slippery slope, of course, and where it ends is anyone’s guess. But then, that’s what economists do….

 

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Sales Fever! Looking Back on Christmases Past

I spent a large chunk of my day today at an out-of-town retail park, where I parted with a small fortune. It was hell on earth, but needs just: I’d been planning to sort myself a new laptop, printer and external hard-drive (I’ve learned – and re-learned – the hard way the importance of backing up all of my work) for months and had been stalling (and saving) for the sales because, being on a budget wanted to make my money go further. And so it was I returned home with an ASUS X53U, an HP Photosmart 6510 and a Samsung hard-drive that measures roughly the size of my wallet and has a whole Terabyte capacity, plus various other non-computing related items for the house.

Needless to say, it was a relief to get home again, and having reserved most of my items on-line in advance, the excursion kept the trudging and legwork and general pain to a minimum. But while out I was acutely aware of just how many people are out there raiding the sales just because goods are discounted, a point reinforced by endless footage n television. Haven’t people got anything better to do, and why do they feel the need to spend money just because? The justification that a £200 jacket had 50% off doesn’t wash – or dry-clean – when considering the flipside of the equation, namely that there’s still 50% on. The last I heard, we were in the middle of a financial crisis. Are people really still dim enough to max out their credit cards just because they can’t resist a ‘bargain’? It would appear they are.

So once again I was reminded that people are idiots, and of the adage that a fool and his money are soon parted. I was also reminded of a blog I posted back in the MySpace days, which I found on my old (and now full to capacity) 300G hard-drive. It may have been posted on this day in 2007, but most of the points still stand, and it’s somehow comforting to observe how little I’ve changed my position. I like to be consistent (although I have taken time off work this year)….

 

Sales Fever! (2007)

 

The fact I haven’t been present on-line for the last couple of days shouldn’t be misinterpreted that I was busy wholeheartedly embracing the traditional Christmas rituals. I don’t absolutely hate everything about Christmas, and for me, it’s a good opportunity to spend a couple of days not straining my eyes in front of the PC and to actually have something approximating a rest.
 
Still, because I don’t consider Christmas to be quite as big a deal as many, and don’t consider it a reason to go on a month-long bender with everyone I’ve ever met, and don’t feel the need to eat my own body weight in poultry and pork, I didn’t feel the need to book the days between Christmas and New Year off work. Being at the office – a place I abhor with a passion – is always more bearable when there’s no work, no phone calls and no other staff in to drive me to distraction with their inane waffle.
 

Business as usual it isn’t. and while I’ve been able to potter around without distraction and amuse myself by switching the contents of people’s drawers and so on, I’ve also given a thought to those thousands of people who work in the retail sector. As I’m writing this on January 27th, I’m quite relieved to be hiding out in an office: I learned from Breakfast on BBC1 that today was expected to be the busiest shopping day of the year. And the footage I saw of the queues and the rucks on Boxing day were disturbing enough. It raised a few issues, not least of all the question ‘why?’ I mean, after a month of intensive shopping, why would anyone want to go shopping through choice? It’s insane. We’re a nation in financial crisis, in case no-one had noticed. But then, it’s this inherent greed and an inability to say ‘no’ – or to be seen to be unable to keep up with the pack – that’s got us here in the first place.
 

But irrespective of whether or not we (collectively) can afford to splurge, one would think that the last thing anyone would want to do after a period of intensive shopping in the run-up to Christmas is go shopping. I mean, it’s hell. It’s not so much a jungle out there as it is total war. There was an item on Breakfast in which some ‘fashion guru’ was giving tips on how to succeed in the sales, revealing a handbag full of energy-giving drinks and snacks (‘bananas are great for energy…’) and advising that in order to grab that must-have bargain, if you need to kick or punch, then so be it. To condone or promote such behaviour is beyond me. It’s not a loaf of bread in the middle of a famine, it’s a fucking handbag. Let’s get things in perspective here.

Despite my general disregard for many of the traditional aspects of Christmas, this eagerness to hit the shops on Boxing day or the day after is concerning. One issue is the fact that people seem to expect shops to be open all the time, and we do appear to be very slowly heading the American way, toward a 24-day society. The demand is for convenience, and that demand is coming to be supplied. And why not? Well, it’s all very well to demand, and to receive supply, but what of those who are required to deliver that supply? I’m talking primarily about those in retail here, of course, because 24-hour shopping requires 24-hour staffing of shops, but there’s inevitably a knock-on effect. We already have 24-hour / overnight couriers and so on… and where’s it going to end? And 24-hour is one thing, but what about 365-day-a-year?

Time was when everything closed on Sundays and Bank Holidays. Now, banks are about the only things closed on Bank Holidays (well, the clue’s in the name). A friend of mine said “they’ll have us working on Christmas day soon, mark my words.” Now, he’s a cynical old goat, but I think he may have a point. And similarly, the synchronicity of Christmas and the exchange of gifts may actually become a thing of the past the way things are going.

Consider the facts: the January sales now start on Boxing day. December 27th is the biggest shopping day of the year. Many take unwanted gifts back and exchange them for things they ‘really’ want in the sale, and I’ve heard a number of people say they’re waiting till the sales for their presents. So it’s not that much of a stretch to see, 10 years hence, people going shopping on Christmas day when the sales start, perhaps having a slap-up meal in the evening, and exchanging gifts on New Year’s eve, with New Year’s day remaining the only day the shops are closed because half of the population’s too hungover to go shopping. Of course, the reaction to this may eventually be to put the sales back to January again, and dog knows what kind of mayhem or rioting may ensue as a consequence.

The trouble is, the people who are at the head of the queues, who will punch and kick and trample to get their bargains and are demanding most vocally to be supplied appear to the, somewhat ironically, the same people who most rigidly adhere to the notion of a ‘traditional’ Christmas – extended family round for dry turkey and Aunt Bessie’s roast potatoes, followed by falling asleep in a cloud of flatulence in front of Eastenders, before re-enacting Eastenders with a major drunken barney of their own over something petty but that will prevent the different factions within the family from speaking to one another until the same time next year.

I’m not defending Christmas as a religious holiday of course, but given that I’m of the opinion that people should hibernate during the winter months, do think that in terms of maintaining a work/life balance, the demand for everything on tap at all times there should be some time off.

So I’m keeping out of it (I’ve quite enough handbags already, thank you). But alas, I may not be able to avoid the sales entirely. Whereas I usually receive more calendars than I have rooms in the house, this year I didn’t receive a single calendar. Ok, so I’ll buy my own. I just hope I’m not too late and won’t have to end up with a Russell Brand picture calendar.

 

 

 

 

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The Cost of Living: When Inflation Increases Beggar Belief

The other day I was walking through town on my way home after an arduous day’s chairpounding. I had my MP3 player on (an Alba I bought in Netto several years ago, the battery door of which is sellotaped on after one of the hinged broke) and it was blowing a gale as I weaved my way through clusters of ambling clods. I was suddenly aware of a man standing to my left, stepping into my path and waving his hands as one does when trying to flag down a car in an emergency, a half-rolled cigarette in one hand. He spoke, but I couldn’t hear him for my music. I stopped, removed an earphone and begged his pardon, half-expecting him to ask if I had a light.
    ‘Got any spare change?’ he asked.
    ‘I haven’t, sorry,’ I replied.
    ‘How about a pound coin?’ he said, without missing a beat. He indicated the sleeping bag and three rucksacks propped against the wall of the building behind him. I’d clocked these from the off, and had taken him for a backpacker.
    ‘I’m sorry, I haven’t got any change,’ I repeated. A pound coin is still change, albeit moving somewhere beyond the ‘small change’ category.
    ‘Five pound note?’ he pressed.
    I didn’t have a fiver. In fact, having only been to the bank at lunchtime, I had only a solitary twenty pound note on my person. I suppose I could have made him go through the denominations until he got to twenty, before having to admit that I did have a twenty but it wasn’t spare, or asking if he had any change for it, but instead simply told him that I was sorry, but didn’t have any money. I might have added that I didn’t or a light for that fag he was halfway through rolling either, because I’d given up smoking some years ago after it became too expensive for me to sustain even a five a day habit, but thought better of it and went on my way.
    I’ll admit that more than I felt guilty for not having been able to help, I was taken aback by his brazen pushiness. Unshaven, in my scuffed Chelsea boots and second-hand jeans, did I look like I had a fiver to spare? But as I continued home, I pondered the exchange further.
    The news media has made such a big deal about inflation and the sharp increase in both unemployment and the cost of living in recent months. The families of middle England are the hardest hit, apparently, the cost of fuel having rocketed, making the daily commute, the school run and the supermarket shop substantially more expensive, against a backdrop of reduced benefits for families, etc. Yeah, right. From the bottom up, we’re all in trouble.