From Vogue to OK!, from asos.com to ebay and what with all those endless fashion self-help television programmes, the British are most certainly told how to shop. We know what’s “on trend”, what’s on our current “wishlist” and most of us own one of those punishing money munching store cards, certainly not, as my own employer would term it, “the most fashionable way to pay”. Nowadays we are practically spoon-fed where to spend our money and how. The emphasis on consumer wants is ever expanding and from the financial difficulty Britain has been in for the last few years, it would appear that our society is full of well experienced and educated shoppers. After more than three years working in one of Britain’s favourite high street stores I think I am more qualified than most however to tell how it is that the British public really spend their money – and in all honesty it’s really not a pretty sight.
The most dreaded morning of the year for almost all shop assistants up and down the country, must be the start of the January sale. There is nothing indeed that the British love more than a good bargain – however hideous the items that have emerged from the depths of the stock room that have survived the last five years down there might be. A piece of advice to all ill-advised shoppers out there: if you wouldn’t have bought it at full price, why buy it now just because it has a little pink “now £x” sticker on it? Just like feeding time at the zoo, hoards of screeching women press their noses against the front door, as early as nine am ready to trample the shop into oblivion. I have indeed spent many a shift sitting on the floor beneath piles of clothes whilst women of all ages chuck more onto me – perhaps already wondering what these clothes would look like on their ever increasing floordrobes at home.
This type of standard Saturday afternoon behaviour in the world of the shop assistant however is merely the mildest of behaviour I have experienced. It is not generally the rudeness and untidiness that grates on me most, but in general it is the bare-faced, cheeky dishonesty. Granted, some of Britain’s biggest retail owners are not exactly the most squeaky clean of businessmen and in fact when a group of protesters super-glued themselves to a shop window a year ago in protest over Philip Green, I did not think it unreasonable, them to do so. Nonetheless, it is our managers and assistants that are increasingly pressurised in their jobs when stock-loss rises. It does indeed get tiresome when week after week one enters the staff room to find a group of pale faced teenage girls (and surprisingly they will almost certainly be girls), normally under the age of 14, surrounded by handfuls of jewellery and make-up they have tried to snatch. The British public seem to becoming more and more casual with their stealing. At a recent stock take, our stock loss was around £14,000 in just three months. Professional thieves will pay around £500 on the internet for the powerful stock room magnets that are used to de-tag expensive items, but depressingly the more common offenders are young teenagers. More than often it is seems to be just a kind of game to them – that is until their angry and distraughtly embarrassed very middle class mother turns up drag them home. In my nice girls’ school, certainly those well off pupils did play for a while that shop lifting game.
A couple of the vilest episodes of my shop assistant career have left me genuinely scarred and although acutely aware of the chaotic and dishonest customers, I had never yet been faced by the unhygienic ones. After a particularly gruelling shift, when on our final round of checking the changing rooms for ripped security tags another little delight reached us. A used tampon. We were stunned at the idea that someone could be so disgusting as to shove a used tampon under a mirror and wait for the un-expecting employee to discover it, however my manager appeared to be unscathed and unsurprised. Only a few weeks later after more closely examining a pair of jeans we found them to be soiled…. I thought the tampon incident was the worst it could possibly get but clearly not. The British public really are disgusting shoppers.
You may notice that so far I’ve only mentioned the female shoppers I’ve encountered and whilst not wanting to deal in gender stereotypes it is indeed true that the most difficult of shoppers are the women. Indeed it is always a welcome relief to be sent downstairs to work with the boys. I’ve often wondered why it is that the men make a so much cleaner shoppers and I have come to the conclusion that it is because many women feel in their own territory when shopping. They will come to the till with twelve things to return, six to exchange, twenty pounds on a gift card, refund for a damaged item, a store card to pay off, five things to enquire the price of and of course buy another round of clothes, all with student discount. Whereas men, feeling much less in their natural habit nervously approach us, ask whether the jacket fits, whether the trousers are better in charcoal or tan and the best bit, only try on things they intend to buy and then put everything back on the hanger – unexpected but true. Your average Topman is so much simpler than your average Topwoman.
Where does this behaviour come from? Why are the British public such hideous and disrespectful shoppers? Last summer we were universally troubled as the rioting and looting of town centres unfurled on our tv screens. When watching these scenes I couldn’t help but wonder, in my rather distressingly geeky way, if in thirty years a history student like me was writing an essay on the social and economic factors that contributed to the outbreak of the 2011 August rioting, what would they say? Surely among pointing to factors such as government cuts, social pressures and political disillusionment, they would scrabble around for underlying psychological factors that created the mindset of our brutally consumer based society. Whilst these scenes of the rioting were obviously no laughing matter, I have to admit that I stifled a snigger when watching people try on a pair of shoes before nicking them or holding up a pair of jeans to see if they would fit. Whilst I would not directly compare the behaviour of this summers’ rioters to a bolshie middle aged women wanting a dishonest refund, there must be some observations to be had. In general my experience as a shop assistant has been a good one, but this is not due to our charming customers. British attitudes to shopping has got to change, it is not in reality the glossy experience our media make it out to be. The British attitude to our consumer culture appears to becoming more and more vulgar and whether this manifests itself in rather unpleasant purchasing techniques, or spills out with even more dramatic and disrespectful results, it appears that there are even bigger questions to be raised in the fashion industry than just what is round the corner for the next season’s collections.
Rosa Schiller Crawhurst