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A nation of shoppers

There is an old joke that says that if you save money by running behind a bus, you save even more by running behind a taxi. A joke is a joke, not a moral statement, but I think there is a nugget of wisdom in this, particularly when it comes to the post-Christmas sales.

I have nothing against bargains, but common sense says that something is only a bargain if you really want what you're buying.  A genuine bargain is where you want something so much you would pay full price for it if you had to, and getting it cheaper is a bonus. I say "want", not "need"; I am far from being a puritan about food, drink or consumer goods. Buying things you don't need is fine if they will give you pleasure and you can afford them, and if you get them cheap, so much the better. But buying things you don't even want, just because they are cheap, is madness, and it seems Britain is going mad. In The Times, Janice Turner injects a note of sanity, arguing that "to shop excitedly so soon after Christmas is as nausea inducing as eating a whole turkey dinner then stuffing yourself with pizza":

Feeling a bit porky and raddled after your December debauch? Want a new you for the new year? A plastic surgery firm is offering three treatments for the price of two. That's right, have, say, your lower eye-bags removed and your breasts enlarged and they'll throw in a labia reduction (a lucrative new source of self-hate apparently) or a neck lift absolutely free! But hurry — all surgery must be completed before the end of January.

A labia reduction? Not exactly conspicuous consumption, although I have heard that knickers are down in Marks & Spencers....

Clinics offering cut-price ops, this week condemned by Which?, encapsulate the utter rubbishness of sales mentality: allowing yourself to be harried into buying something you don't want — and certainly don't need — under the guise of saving money.

In Selfridges on Thursday for my traditional exchange of wrong-sized Christmas sweaters, I watched women in the handbag section snatch up totes and clutches, barely looking at what they were buying. To shop so excitedly so soon after Christmas is to me as nausea-inducing as eating a huge turkey dinner, patting your straining stomach, then stuffing down a deep-pan pizza.

What kind of consumer gluttons have we become that the head of PC World can gloat that his customers prefer to spend Christmas Day shopping online rather than “sitting in front of elderly relatives playing charades”. You've just opened your presents, but why waste time talking to the people who bought them when you could be shovelling up more stuff.

[...]

A million British people are so broke that they're funding their mortgages or rent by credit card, repaying one kind of debt by creating another. The notion of living within one's means is as archaic as rationing. No one saves for anything, never anticipates a pleasure: why wait when you can slap it on the plastic. The gap between a desire and its satiation is fleeting. And so the craving never ends.

But I have never bought anything I truly love in a sale. A good deal on a new washing machine was appreciated when our old one was bust. But how can you care for a dress dragged from a discount bin, in a store like a ransacked shantytown, which was rejected by all who came before you? Once inside the fitting room the colour is draining, the cut unflattering. It is in the sale for a reason. And sales encourage us to ignore an item's intrinsic worthlessness and be seduced by the hokum of designer branding. OK, it's a crop-top purple cowl-neck shroud — but, hey, it's cheap and it's DKNY! Yet one perfect full-price frock gives better value than four bits of tat that never quite fit.

"It is in the sale for a reason," says Turner. And she's right. There are very few genuine bargains around; I'm inclined to think that the only reliable bargains are items bought in bulk at a discount, and even then only if  you want them.

So, we are a nation of shoppers. It could be worse. We could be a nation of shoplifters.