Anyone who watched the national news over the Christmas period in 2012 is likely to have noticed the focus on retail spending, and, in particular, the economic importance of the post-Christmas discount period, or what everyone else calls ‘the sales’. Even with America perched perilously on its fiscal cliff and Britain still suffering from the blows of the cuts, millions of shoppers were still expected on every high street across the country. With the British pound squeezed for all its worth, many shoppers feel it is wise economy to make the most of the heavily discounted goods available in late December and January. Certainly, paying 50% of what you would have paid the previous month is saving you 50%. However, the importance of the sales period in retail as a whole is revealing, and not just to those who breakfast on The Financial Times.
When we buy something , we are often not only buying that item, but we are buying into an idea and an ideal. Shopaholics and consumerism might be terms we think of exclusively in relation to very modern times. In fact, they stretch back to the nineteenth century at least, and they unfurl in Zola’s French novel , Au Bonheur des Dames (usually translated as ‘The Ladies’ Delight/Paradise’) . Zola’s novel charts the opening of Paris’ first department store, which, though significant in itself, also marked a movement from individual experts in separate shops to the glittering vistas of the shops which seemed to sell everything you could imagine. The novel is fascinating both as a socio-historical glimpse into the earliest days of a consumerism that is so commonplace today, and as the story of its central protagonist, Denise, a country girl who has to find her way in both France’s vast capital and in a vast new department store. But of course, behind the shimmer of silks, the old world and its ways were being engulfed by the new Paris, leaving traders without the trades and threatening family tradition. All this, fuelled by something both conscious and sub-conscious: desire.
Desire is something retail tycoons have been cashing in on since the nineteenth century and centuries before, and they are still trading with our desires today. “SALE'” sounds like a great deal, doesn’t it? Something that should cost X for half of X, or even less. But, in a country still finding its feet financially, aren’t retail gurus simply capitalising on one of our greatest current fears? Buying things in a sale makes us feel as though we are being careful, being economical, but in fact we still buy into the consumer game, albeit at a discounted rate. The sale is a main event both in Sophie Kinsella’s first shopaholic novel and in the BBC’s recent period drama, The Paradise, (which was loosely based on Zola’s novel). Kinsella’s Rebecca is constantly drawn to sales, both in the UK and America, feeling, at the moment of every purchase, that she is getting a brilliant deal that is simply too good to miss. Similarly, in The Paradise, Moray’s great concept is having a huge sale in his department store. In the nineteenth century when Zola’s novel and The Paradise are set, the idea of a sale on such a scale was still new, and yet, over one hundred years later, sales are still attracting huge attention, in fiction and in reality.
Kinsella’s Shopaholic series are deceptive. They are usually categorised at ‘chick-lit’ and taken in a relatively light-hearted manner but they actually go straight to the heart of what for many people is a day-to-day hardship: financial ruin due to overspending. Yes, we can buy into the whitewashed, vanilla-scented life of television commercials and shop-window advertising, but what even the small print does not tell us that, even in a sale, the real winner is the brand who has won us over with their clever and well-placed advertising.
Although I do not think the BBC’s The Paradise captures the complex essence of Zola’s novel, it does successfully articulate on screen how department stores try to create a fairy-tale landscape to attract their customers and gives a wink to the consumerism and capitalism beneath the birth of such a store.
So, would I urge you to read and watch Confessions of a Shopaholic, Au Bonheur des Dames, and The Paradise which all share the fascinating and searingly current theme of consumerism? No, because I hope, with shopping as with books and television, that you will make up your own mind. However, this take-it or leave-it indirect manner could just be my own brand of marketing.
Happy New Year, Happy Reading, and, dare I say it, Happy Sales Shopping.