Affairs

Retail

The animal kingdom of the high street— London

Preface

What is it about shopping at this time of year that turns people into animals?

Black Friday, Christmas, Consumerism, Shopping

2 December 2011

What is it about shopping at this time of year that turns people into animals? It starts with a bang on Black Friday in the United States, the sales day after thanksgiving, which signals the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Footage from camera phones flooded the internet, showing black friday scenes that resembled the black hole of Calcutta. Men and women were packed so tightly they couldn’t breathe, yet they were still able to shop. Or rather shove. And shout.

It reached a climax at Walmart. Moshpits erupted in an Oakland branch over 4GB memory cards costing 99 cents. In Atlanta, one woman fell head first into the bargain bucket amid the crush to get towels for $1.28. She was pulled out by her legs, not in an act of charity, but because she was in the way of many more precious towels. It’s amazing that there weren’t any deaths this year; one Walmart employee was trampled to death in a stampede in 2008. What you can’t find on YouTube is the carnage that gets left behind. I wonder what a post-Black Friday Walmart looks like; I imagine it resembles a field of corn after a biblical swarm of locusts has swept past.

As retailers face the prospect of grim takings before austerity Christmas, sales are starting earlier than ever. What shops might not make in profit they can at least get in footfall – luring present-shoppers in with promises of towels for $1.28. It’s not just the Americans – we British are just as brutish when it comes to grabbing a bargain before anyone else. London’s Oxford Street after work is like Walmart with no roof. The Westfield shopping Centres that bookend London are like Walmarts with escalators.

The goodwill that’s supposed to spread at this time of year is nowhere to be found in the vicinity of a shop in sale mode. Elbows, handbags, heels and occasionally fists are tools of the trade.

This year’s animal behaviour seems more riotous than ever – the message of rampant consumerism is in sharp contrast to the Occupy protests unfolding around the world. The footage has more in common with the late summer riots and looting in the UK – the lure of getting something for almost free brings out the similar levels of reckless abandon.

Perhaps banning sales is the solution. It might sound brutal, particularly given the current financial climate, but maybe learning to live without fistfuls of discount memory sticks and bargain hand towels might teach us that these things don’t really make life any better. As we head into the busiest shopping weekend of the year tomorrow, watch those elbows folks and think twice before hitting the person who gets to the till first.

Monocle 24

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