Wednesday 12 December 2018

All hail the consumer culture 

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

It is really not that surprising that Black Friday has become so popular. We have always been a nation which loves bargains and discounts (some people have been known to turn haggling at the flea market into an art form), so the idea of one full day of slashed prices and the promise of getting a good deal speaks to our very souls. 

According to a TVM report, shop owners who were interviewed said that it is their busiest day of the year, surpassing even the two public holidays in December (on the 8th and 13th) which were traditionally the days when people flocked to do their Christmas shopping.  But now it seems Black Friday has become the day many decide to flex their credit cards and shop till they drop, ticking off the presents they need to buy from their Christmas list. According to the report, some even book a day’s leave in order to shop – now, that’s what I call commitment. 

Just like we did with Halloween and in some bizarre cases, even Thanksgiving, we have also borrowed Black Friday from American culture, which falls on the day after Thanksgiving.  We are not the only country to do so of course, because the world has been globalized to such an extent that whatever happens in the US is quickly copied elsewhere.  But when I read that people even camped out overnight to be the first in the queue for certain shops, and that one shop opened as early as 6am, I realized that there is something about Malta which seems to be morphing more and more into a mini-America. Unfortunately, it is not always the most admirable qualities which we are copying.  

From our love affair with our cars, to an addiction to fast food and generous portions which have spiked our obesity rates, to the full-hearted embrace of shopping centres and a materialistic culture – the comparisons are everywhere you look.  There is something about our penchant for shopping in particular which carries its own symbolism; as I have often pointed out before, years of austerity and the dire lack of consumer choice in the past seem to have left a scar which is difficult to heal. This constant craving for buying more, even though our homes are bursting with things; the desire to discard and replace not because something is no longer usable but simply because we have grown tired of it and want a newer, upgraded model.  Consumerism driven by hype and clever advertising is, of course, the keystone of successful marketing campaigns, which convince you that you need, you must buy that outfit or latest gadget in order to achieve a level of satisfaction in your life which nothing else can give you.   All these triggers play upon the part of our brain which responds to instant gratification and hedonistic pleasure and, to put it frankly, it works.

Who among us has not relished the pleasure of buying something new, which can give you an inexplicable warm feeling that can last for days?  So I am not knocking the enjoyment of shopping per se, but I do sometimes wonder where this constant yearning for more when we already have so much, is going to lead.

After all, there comes a point when your closet can no longer handle any more clothes and you find yourself giving away bags of ‘stuff’ which you no longer wear (or even remembered you had), and you start to question the rationale behind it all.  It definitely has something to do with the need to shop for new things. I see second-hand furniture still in good condition being advertised and it is practically being given anyway, no one wants it; everyone wants what is new and shiny, even though it is not necessarily as sturdy.  Try telling a young couple these days to start off married life with borrowed furniture as was done in the past, and they would look at you in horror.   

It is far easier to explain why incorrigible hoarders have so many things – those people who have a real problem and end up living under piles of outdated magazines and hanging on to tins of preserves from 50 years ago.  They are usually diagnosed with some underlying disorder or condition which manifests itself into the inability to throw anything away. 

But what about the rest of us who already have everything we could possibly need, and yet tend to be gripped by the compulsion to buy something (anything) whenever we pass by a shop window? Especially a shop window which has a large red poster saying 50% off? (OK, in Malta it’s more likely to be 30% but you get the drift).

When the sales are on we are talking about the consummate shopper’s ultimate Achilles heel. Over the years I have schooled myself to question whether I really need something or whether I am just buying it because it’s such a good bargain. I have gradually started to do the same whenever I’m on holiday – am I buying it because, like Mt Everest, it’s there, or because it is something which I had actually been looking for?  Again, I am not denying the ‘thrill’ which a purchase or ten can bring – it’s not called retail therapy for nothing – but questioning the motive does help to cut down on out-of-control spending.  

I realise the paradox of writing this at the time of year which is dedicated to spending, but there is no denying that the lead up to Christmas has been overshadowed by the commerce of it all. Suffice to say that some shops put up their decorations as early as October, forcing us to look at tinsel for almost three full months.  Has our consumer culture rendered us incapable of enjoying ourselves in any other way other than by maxing out our credit cards?  Speaking of credit cards, that is another American ‘tradition’ which has gradually crept into our culture as people rack up debts on their plastic and spend money they don’t have because they want something, and they want it now, while trying to forget that they will eventually have to face up to their credit card bills some time in dreary January. 

The real twist in the tale of our version of Black Friday is that people are so willing to queue for hours for discounts (which are often not that great) but then balk at the idea of queuing for anything else.  Waiting is not our strong point, as can be witnessed by the dramatic sighing and loud complaints any time one is in the waiting room of a health centre or at the hospital for (free) healthcare.  When told to queue for the (free) organic bins and the waste separation bins, again came all the melodrama.  Yet on Friday people battled traffic and fought their way to a parking space and then waited in long lines just to save a few Euros.  I suppose the idea that one has saved money and clinched a bargain must be an alluring one – alluring enough to make the whole day completely worth it.  

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