Christmas shopping: click, click merrily online, the virtual tills are ringing

Cyber Monday is the combined result of Thanksgiving in the US and the British tradition of shopping online at work

Christmas, huh? Gets earlier every year, except it doesn’t: things have changed in the world of the gift, new dates and rules and circuitry have been introduced. We go to the shops to have a look at stuff, then buy online. We’re told it’s Christmas for at least three months in advance, but two pan-Atlantic impulses – the American convention of not starting shopping for Christmas until after Thanksgiving, the UK preference for shopping in our employer’s time – have fixed upon a single day, Cyber Monday.

Falling this year on 2 December, this clickfest saw £10,000 spent per second in the UK last year. Experian – the credit rating company which tracks bankruptcies with one hand while tallying spending with the other, estimated 115 million visits to online shopping sites.

Cathrine Jansson-Boyd, a consumer psychologist at Anglia Ruskin University, points to the subtleties of the switch: we haven’t stopped going to shops; We’ve merely stopped shopping in them. “The whole tactile impact is still very much there. Women have generally a preference for touching things, wanting to take in the atmosphere. What we are seeing for children is that Mummy and Daddy quite often drag the kid out to look at the window display, and then go off and order it on Amazon because it’s cheaper.” (My local bookseller corroborates this with the most dispiriting story: that sometimes people go in, spend ages choosing a book, then scan the barcode to get it off Amazon).

Ben Rushworth, 28, says: “I’m aware of the moral issues around buying from Amazon, but I’m simply not in the financial position that I can afford to buy the same item for £10 more somewhere else. I’d like to. I just can’t.”

The psychology of the change is fascinating – even people who could afford to spend more on principle simply can’t access their better selves while they’re shopping. “There is no such thing as altruism in consumption. Shopping and consumption is all about pleasure.” Jansson-Boyd says.

I allow myself a moment of arguing with the academic here: there has to be a grain of altruism somewhere, surely? “This is a social psychological concept, called the tragedy of the commons. If something has a self-serving aspect, then you will sacrifice the common good. A very simplistic example is buy one get one free. If you want to be environmental, you have to reduce your consumption. But people think, I’m getting one free, this is better for me.”

Toby Flux, 46, points out that, as well as rarely being the cheapest, shops often don’t have the right stuff. “The internet is a far bigger shop window and practically guarantees the best price. The magic’s gone, when as soon as you arrive at a high street, and you know already you’re doing yourself down.” And the calculations of self-interest keep on coming – we want to do it in our employer’s time, according to Jansson-Boyd. “I don’t want to spend my own time on people I’m maybe not fussed about.”

Just one small question, before we get on to why we would put all this effort into anything, when we are such horrible people who don’t care about anyone: how come shops still exist? “If the stores are very clever, they can still capitalise on the fact that people are walking through the door. If you can’t interest them in something that genuinely is going to bring in money, then baffle them with nonsense. Here’s a thing to hang in the tree, if you turn it upside down bubbles come out. Those things you don’t buy online.” Right. Great.

It’s enough to put you off shopping altogether, and has done for Nicole Slavin who is “bah humbug about Christmas, partly because of the commercialisation and the sheer social pressure to buy people things”. But being a refusnik doesn’t help, according to Jansson-Boyd. Many families without small children stop buying presents because they realise, as adults, you’re essentially just “swapping money”. So they keep the money and spend it on themselves. But it still gets spent.

And if you’re anti-Christmas for green reasons, that’s even worse. “What we’re seeing is that people with high levels of environmental awareness are changing their consumer habits at Christmas. Interestingly enough they spend more money than most people, I don’t even think they know they do it.”

It’s easy to opt out when there are no children, and a physical impossibility when there are. Even the psychologist who specialises in the manipulation of consumers and only has two pairs of shoes, buys stuff for her kids (she sticks to £20). The only problem is, by indulging their excitement, we’re nurturing in them the same mindless-drone impulse that leads us to work like dogs in order to buy baubles with bubbles in.

“If we had more self-confidence, if we were more individual, we would resist this stuff more easily. Because it’s killing us,” Jansson-Boyd concludes, lightly. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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