I’ve just finished reading Shopgirls: True Stories of Friendship, Hardship and Triumph From Behind the Counter, after picking it up a few months ago in a charity shop. It is a thoroughly well researched book and I find this kind of social history very interesting. What surprised me was this little bit at the end of the book which I shall share with you now. It was nothing like the historical accounts that compiled the rest of the book and I thought it was pertinent.
“Over the past two centuries shopping has become nothing less than our national past time and many will find it a hard habit to break. Collectively, we still spend more time shopping than we do on any other single activity outside work. – as much as eighteen hours a week according to one recent survey and a combined total of eight years of our lives, according to another.
Part of what drives us to do this, of course, is that we shop out of necessity for the food, clothes and other essentials that we cannot get any other way. After all, most of our nineteenth-century ancestors didn’t become consumers for fun; if they were among the working poor, they became consumers to live. But along the way, together with the better-off, they found new pleasures and developed new kinds of sociability in and around shopping. And it’s arguably these things that continue to draw so many of us to the shops today: we have strong emotional attachments to both the stores and, very often, the people who help us within them.
Shops suffuse our earliest memories. As babies and children, it’s quite likely that we spent a fair amount of time in and around shops for the simple reason that shopping is one of the few tasks that can be achieved with young children in tow. Beyond that, particular visits to specific shops are often markers of personal milestones: being taken to buy our first pair of shoes, school uniform, wristwatch or teenage party outfit; spending our first wage packet; choosing gifts for birthdays, engagements, weddings and retirements. Equally, being unable to afford to be part of these modern rituals of buying and giving can hurt and be a source of shame.
The fact that shopping allows us to give to others – and to give much more than formal gifts and presents – is hugely important. Everyday shopping is nothing less than an act of love. Buying things for others – food, clothes, toys, or treats – is an everyday way of showing we care, that we’ve thought about what others need or want. In effect, we ‘say it through shopping’. To view consumer culture this way – as an intensely social part of life, built on relationships – is to challenge the more wearily familiar line that it is shallow, self-centred and individualising. Perhaps the pursuit of small personal pleasures, alongside the promise of the ‘experience’, may yet keep our shopping rituals alive.”
I don’t know what your thoughts are? I have to say that I feel I disagree with the authors, I don’t think that much of the buying that goes on is for others. I think most people buy for themselves, much of the time. It’s admirable that they have tried to put a more positive spin on consumerism, but I think they’ve missed some other huge elements around sustainability and the environment, debt and finance, slave labour and so on. I also think it would be terribly sad if all a child’s key moments in their life revolved around the acquisition of stuff in some form. Sure, I remember being taken to buy school uniform but I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly fond thought. I’m far happier re-calling many a childhood experience – holidays, sporting activities and time spent with significant people than I am visits to shops!
I would say that in the UK we have largely turned every religious festival into an excuse to buy stuff and there is nothing left that we celebrate for celebrations sake. Wouldn’t we be far richer as a culture if we had shared traditions that we all participated in, where we could feel a connection with the past and our roots, than a ritual of buying every-changing stuff only to dispose of it a short-time later?