A nation of shopfitters


Only five days till Twelfth Night. Then Captain Birdseye can go sling his hook. 'Twill no longer be the season to be Tango'd. I refer, of course, to this season's charming Oxford Street and Regent Street decorations where these cherished names are strung across the road in lights beaming cheer upon the shoppers as they scurry along the pavements in search of gifts for their loved ones. "The result is sparely kitsch, intended to evoke both the glamour of Christmas and the empty materialism so often beneath it," according to a Tate Gallery spokeswoman. Granted, she wasn't actually speaking about these decorations. She was speaking about Richard Wilson's festive lobby installation at the gallery. But the description applies as well, if not rather better, to the street decorations. What does this tell us, other than that the artwork is plainly offering a redundant commentary?

Oxford Street's traders have pulled off an unequalled combination of blatant sponsorship and sheer meanness. The impoverished shopkeepers of Folkestone didn't even get that far. Instead, there was the televised spectacle of the French popping across the Channel in pity, proffering tasteful white-painted twigs to adorn the Kentish streets. The burghers must have struggled to disguise their disappointment when what they probably wanted was one of those moulded plastic lighting-up snowmen.

One is tempted to echo the pious statements of football managers and say these antics bring retailing into disrepute but, like football, it's in a continual state of disrepute anyway. Nothing to do with the protection of Christmas as a time of religious significance. It's just that retailing as it has been constructed in Britain has the capacity to spoil almost anything - the goods it sells, our ability to discriminate, the environments in which it operates, from high streets to the museums and airports into which "shopping" is spuriously introduced. "Shop the world," says the slogan at our airports, like an expletive, full of self-loathing.

Meanwhile, we read that we have some of the highest prices in Europe, especially for food. We also have some of the brokest farmers and scariest food scares. And some of the wealthiest and most influential retail magnates. The legacy of Adam Smith's nation of shopkeepers is that "Lord" Sainsbury, "Lord" MacLaurin of Tesco and "Sir" Archie (Asda) Norman entertain political as well as commercial ambitions.

It is design that put them there. Designers like to say they "add value". It is their branding, product packaging and retail environments that do this, each a layer that distances us from reality. (One of the "promises" of genetically modified foods is to drop yet another veil between us and what our food ought to be, as the appearance of perfection once conveyed by the package is osmotically absorbed by the items in the package.) Retail designers like Michael Peters and Rodney Fitch (OBE and CBE respectively) don't swagger like they did in the 1980s, but they are still there, "adding value", disconnecting us from worth. It is this same cycle of visual usury that impoverishes farmers, keeps consumers in ignorance, and lines the pockets of the supermarket owners.

Designers don't take a Hippocratic oath, but there is usually some residual idealism at the back of their minds. However, those working in the retail sector seem a breed apart, beholden entirely to their clients, happy to disorient the customer in their stores and to disguise rubbish as quality. The new Tesco in Earl's Court (they say Kensington) is the latest example, a spectacular crystal cathedral. It's so well done that we are made to feel pathetically grateful. Without the selfless intercession of these nobs we would surely starve.

The scale is the problem. Supermarket displays are the analogue of the batteries of hens or the horizon-stretching hectares of ruthless monoculture. There is an assurance of plenty, and plenty of everything. Saint Delia encourages us to cook to suit the supermarkets. Under the guise of making it look easy, her smart-bombe precision inculcates a fear of error or experiment. With her, it's recipe, list, shop, recipe, cook. There's little heed paid to seasonality, quality or taste. There's nothing ad hoc as there would have to be if one were choosing from the more modest selections of goods available at the corner shop or, if you're lucky, the local organic. Here the sequence has to be shop, think, cook. If Delia wants a challenge, she could educate us in this more versatile skill.

This is not a puritan polemic. Shopping ranks high as a leisure activity. Those who think the Internet will replace the physical experience are surely mistaken. But the real thing could be made not only more pleasant, but also more honest, and designers could be the people to do it. It would be a shame if we lost the habit - it cannot be called an art - of shopping. While it's not often convivial, it is at least consensual. It is a kind of contact with the world; a shop that is entirely empty is a strange place indeed.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour