For several weeks, Christmas shopping has dominated the retail centres in Cambridge, and doubtless in many other places as well. This shopping mania was brought home to me — never an enthusiastic shopper — a couple of weeks ago when I went to one of the big retail stores in Cambridge to meet two friends, from different parts of the country, who were using Cambridge as a good central meeting point. The store was full of people, with Christmas then a month away.
I have always been amazed at the list of “must buys” that fill the newspapers as the Christmas season approaches. I suppose I am by nature not a “must buy” sort of person. Indeed, I could far more accurately be described as a “why on earth should I buy?’ type. I have never understood why, at this time of year, or indeed at any time of year, so many people feel a compulsion to spend money on things which they do not need. The answer, no doubt, is that it is a reflection of seasonal excitement.
My scepticism about this kind of excitement has always existed (and I am, I am sure, the last person anyone would want as company on a Christmas shopping spree.)
This year, the scepticism has been transformed into astonishment. Every day, for many months, we have been assailed with stories of the financial problems which thousands of people are facing. And yet, financial difficulties notwithstanding, they are out in their thousands spending money on expensive, and in my sceptical opinion completely unnecessary presents.
It is not only the retail shops that are busy. Shopping online has been dramatically increasing. Apparently 400 million hours will be spent shopping online in December. According to Experian Hitwise, Monday, 9 December, will be “Middle Cyber Monday, with an expectation of over 110 million visits to retail websites.
There is nothing particularly surprising, of course, in the fact that online shopping has been increasing. Even an old buffer like me recognises that doing things online, impossible when I was young, is very much the way in which things are done. What is more, I see nothing wrong with it. Being an old buffer does not mean that I am against progress.
It is not how shopping is done that causes me astonishment.
In recent comments, the U.K. Retail Consortium has reported that “U.K. retail sales have been described as ‘encouraging’, having grown ahead of the run-up to Christmas, with October sales up by 2.6 per cent on last year”.
That suggests that my completely unscientific observations of what is happening in the retail world may be right, although of course I have to recognise that my judgment may be exaggerating the real situation. It is possible, in other words, that the thousands of people whom I notice as I watch the big retail stores are not quite as numerous as they initially seem to be.
All that said, it remains a paradox that at a time when thousands of people are suffering financially, thousands of them are busily spending money on seasonal purchases. There are, I suppose, a number of possible explanations. The most likely one, I feel, is that the method by which people spend their money now is very different from what it was when I was young. We now pay for things with credit cards more frequently than with cash — and it is much easier with a credit card to use money which one does not have. Repaying it can be a protracted business, and people may often hardly recognise that they are living with ever extending debt.
I have admitted to scepticism about the attraction of the “must buy” mentality. Now I must admit also to cynicism. What possible justification can there be for living on the principle of buying things that one does not need with money that one does not have? Let me be even more cynical, and suggest that the financial and economic experts may have the answer. In our society, huge debts are accepted by the politicians as a matter of course. It is hardly surprising that many “ordinary” people accept that idea for themselves as well as for society as a whole.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org