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Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas Shopping

There are many millions of Christians in Asia, and more in Africa, but the heartlands of surviving Christian belief remain in Europe and the Americas; and it is in Europe, particularly, [and as much among non-believers as among the Faithful] that the pre-Christmas period is the season in which it is conventional for people to buy both special food for the feast and presents for family and friends. The United States has its own earlier orgy of retail indulgence in the Black Friday weekend after Thanksgiving, to which Christmas - usually referred to as 'the Holidays' - is secondary as a market event.

Black Friday is reckoned to be a good indicator of the strength [or otherwise] of US  consumers' confidence in their personal economic future. This year the Black Friday trade was good, but then sales slumped below the average for the last few Decembers; indicating that consumers wanted to make a brave show on the big day, then immediately began more cautiously to allocate their pennies. In Britain the pre-Christmas shopping spree is traditionally followed by the January 'sales' [now beginning at the end of December] and the whole season from late November to mid-January provides a significant proportion - in some segments, a majority - of the annual turnover of non-food retailers. The indications in the UK this year are similar to those in the US: people still want to do some seasonal shopping, but they are more careful to buy just what they can convince themselves they need. Most households are conscious that the cost of living - including increased sales tax, which is ludicrously misrepresented as 'value-added tax' - has risen by significantly more than have personal incomes. Retailers are expecting trade after Christmas, probably including the sales, to be below the level of former years; and to stay muted for much of 2012. There is likely to be a small spending spree around the time of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, as there was around the William and Kate wedding last year, but this will be on party ingredients, bunting and distractions from harsh reality rather than on high-ticket durable items. Professionals in the catering and tourism businesses are predicting that the Olympic Games will not bring a surge of visitors to London: the expectation of huge disruption to transport, and the threat of terrorism, are significant deterrents and tourist trade for 2012 is widely expected to be below that of a 'normal' year.

Economic uncertainly in continental western Europe and in Ireland is having a similar dampening effect on spending patterns, which extends to the Ukraine. Russia is experiencing relative boom conditions, but the communists destroyed the festive tradition of Christmas - focussing instead on an alcoholic New Year bonanza, illuminated by brilliant fireworks - so will see good business-as-usual. For most of the continent, any extra spending over the festive season will be compensated by lower retail turnover in the New Year.

There are several new features in seasonal shopping, which will have a huge impact when all-of-year distributive trade is analysed. In much of Europe 2011 has been the year when on-line shopping has really come-of-age. Amazon leads the field but the on-line business of other major retailers [such as John Lewis in the UK] represents a percentage of their turnover that would have been difficult to imagine even two years ago. Electronic trade in recorded music, both legal and pirated, has taken the predominant market share; leaving traditional music shops fighting for survival with few weapons left in their locker. The predicted level of business will not keep market-town music shops in being, selling sheet music and pianos, guitars and other instruments. Already for two generations musical instruments have only been accessible locally because the shops earned enough to keep going on the revenue from record sales. Now that the tangible record trade is vanishing, the availability of musical instruments around Europe will end; and, insofar as they are sold at all, pianos and trombones will be on-line purchases that will be delivered by carriers from centralised warehouses. Ancillary supplies such as reeds for woodwind instruments, and bow-wax for string players, will be delivered by the postman among a household's on-line purchases. Services that have been provided through local music stores, like piano tuning, will be cottage trades run - usually on a part-time basis - from the providers' homes, where they are able to survive. Financial stringency on customers is cruelly accelerating these shifts in behaviour; and those who blather on about reviving the High Street are challenged to find businesses that can survive in the new environment. Pubs, cafes and restaurants are under threat, too, in a decade of austerity: and the rise of supermarket home deliveries of foodstuffs bought online, at specific times, means that the fishmonger and the greengrocer are less convenient for many householders than are their massive competitors. Little-used local shops often more expensive than supermarkets because they have to levy the overheads from their material business premises and their taxes onto a declining cohort of clients.

Old folk with long memories and fixed habits, and children who delude themselves that they can spend their pocket money outside their parents' ken, want to have local shops available. But the shops' survival will be subject to constant challenge; though considerable publicity has been given to developments in which relatively small  shops and stalls, local delivery rounds and specialist mail-order outlets provide local meat, milk, eggs, fruit, vegetables and cheese from named farms to discriminating householders. Those with the necessary money and leisure to assess the market can combine purchases of local in-season vegetables and meat [which are sourced from modernised local distribution networks] with the option to buy out-of-season produce from Spain and Kenya that are delivered to the consumer  from the supermarket. The availability of all these foodstuffs is announced on the internet; which means that even a small-town market stall or a farm-based butchery needs to have invested in a reasonably sophisticated web site; and that investment is invalidated if the site is not updated constantly. Investment of time in marketing, including the acquisition of skills in information technology, are the most basic survival strategies alongside maintaining the quality and hygiene of the product.

Set against this picture of modern convenience shopping, the poor are increasing in numbers and their lack of means is becoming more painful to chronicle. They are not able to access fashionable brands, even of simple everyday items: in general they have to buy the cheapest that is available. Nevertheless peer pressure and television advertising make all children aware of brands, such that the young demand parity with their schoolfellows in having clothes and gadgets bearing expensive labels. The more a hard-pressed parent succumbs to such demands [which are made in sublime ignorance of the implications on an exiguous parental budget] the less that the household has for other things, so the pressure to buy food that is beyond its sell-by date increases. No aware citizen can ignore the rise of 'pound shops' in the UK and their equivalents elsewhere, the emergence of itinerant sellers of almost any product - including supposedly-fresh food - from the back of unmarked vans, and other signs of the emergence of a cult of cheapness to match the situation of those who are coming to accept that they are the poor. The 'abolition of poverty' was a pipe dream of most democratic political parties in the twentieth century. Right from the start of the present century the focus has rather been on addressing 'child poverty', which instantly translates into giving the carers or parents of the children whatever sum of money is considered necessary to give each child a 'fair' living standard with an appropriate range of educational and cultural opportunities.

At worst, the monetisation of child poverty has made the feckless single mother of three or more children a highly desirable partner for an unskilled shiftless yob who tolerates a low standard of dress and diet, and puts up with the noise and nuisance of children [to which he may intermittently react with violence], to gain a share of the family's income to fuel his habits. More metaphorical bread is 'taken from mouths of poor children' by parents and their parasitic partners than by exploitative capitalism or by the taxation system from which the families' benefits and credits are funded. The eighteenth-century concept of the perfectibility of man, which has been implicit in social and educational theory, is a proven nonsense. Throwing money at social problems raises at least as many issues as those that it was meant to resolve, and some of them - such as hard-drug addiction and commercialised child abuse facilitated by the internet - are at least as horrible as any from past ages. The whole agenda for social construction, reconstruction and adhesion over the whole income range is in most urgent need of revision.  The poor are the most exploited segment of society: primarily by each other.

The situation of those fellow-citizens who have been characterised as an underclass is highly germane to the topic of seasonal shopping with which this blog opened. The poor are defined by their exclusion from the uplands of consumerism: they are 'poor' relative to those who have more. Politicians, journalists, sociologists, social psychologists and others who express opinions about poverty have a standard of living that is notably superior to that of the underclass; and they would not contemplate surrendering the differential voluntarily so that the poor - thereafter including themselves - could have a little more.

One of the features of the current 'festive season' is that millions of people are apprehensive that in the proximate future there is a perceived risk of their own living standard moving further away from that they have enjoyed hitherto and closer to that which they assume characterises the poor. So in the apprehension of worse times to come they have resorted to the only behaviour they know, to which they became accustomed through the long years of the delusory boom: to spend all they could afford, and borrow what they could in addition to their actual means. In doing this at Christmas 2011  the odds must be that by so doing they accelerate their own candidacy for impoverishment relative to their former selves. The psychological, social and political aspects of this situation will prove to be far more serious than will be indicated by economic statistics.

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