I shop: I am

Carried Away: the invention of modern shopping

Rachel Bowlby<em> Faber & Faber, 256pp, £12.99</em>

Shopping may be seen as the definitive modern activity. Nowadays, we shop "for" groceries and household goods, but otherwise we simply go shopping. It is an end in itself, a social or, more commonly, lonely pursuit in which we remain open-minded about what we might end up buying. It is consolatory and meditative in that it both assures us we are rich enough to be able to do it and involves us in a process of self-examination. What do we really want? What do we really need? So pervasive is the idea of shopping that people tend to assume it is timeless. Surely they must have gone shopping in the days of the Roman empire or the Middle Ages. But, in the modern sense of the word, they did not.

The main difference is superfluity. From the beginning of the 20th century, goods and incomes began a rapid upward spiral. Now, we are able not only to go shopping for anything that takes our fancy in the certain knowledge that there will be an effective infinity of possibilities, but also to indulge a vast multiplicity of choice, even when buying such "essentials" as food. Superfluity cuts shopping loose from mere function.

Rachel Bowlby documents this transformation. The book's title suggests the strange trance-like, even ecstatic, condition into which shopping now inducts us. Her opening image is of a moment in Ikea when the computers broke down and queues of immobile shoppers were frozen at the checkouts. "This book is about some of the strange shopping histories that lie behind the ironies of that peculiar Ikea afternoon," she writes, "when all the options of shopping were jammed as immobility and impasse but the customers could not bring themselves to leave."

It is a moment comparable to Luis Bunuel's film The Exterminating Angel, in which the dinner party guests, as it were, cannot leave the building even though there is nothing to stop them. The Ikea customers are caught within a system whose very immateriality - the computers, the scanners, the barcodes - acts as an imprisoning force field. The computer breakdown draws attention to this imprisonment but, in fact, the force field is there all the time. In the 20th century, managing superfluity by means of controlling shoppers became, as this book shows, a novel and distinct technology.

Bowlby has some superb and chilling, although often quaint, examples. A sublime piece of advertising copy for Scott Paper from a 1963 issue of Life magazine speaks of the female shopper: "Somewhere in that head, among the bobbypins, the hairdo, the perfume and the problems, there is a thing that makes calculations and decisions . . . A strange change comes over a woman in a store. The soft glow in the eyes is replaced by a steely financial glint . . ."

We may think we have moved beyond such condescension, but Bowlby shows otherwise. The shopper, having started out as simple buying machine, may have become an intelligent machine, but she remains a machine to be tracked and controlled. The most extraordinary visual image in this book shows the paths taken by 100 shoppers around the aisles in a Colonial Super Market in the US. The resulting tangle of lines is expressive of people as experimental rats in a maze, animals caught in some shifting nexus of impulse and control.

The point here is that it is the shopper who is obliged to find the goods. Self-service is at the heart of most of the innovations that Bowlby describes. Where once we asked for meat and watched it being cut, now we study it through transparent wrapping - Bowlby is particularly good on the significance of what were once called "transpapers". Economically, self-service transfers costs to the consumer by making him or her do all the work.

Lord Sainsbury, apparently, was once "accosted by a judge's wife in Purley" who said that he "had no right to expect the customer to do work the assistants had done in the past". The lady in question was acute - retail profits are based on the denial of service.

Self-service also creates a new psychology of shopping in which we are intentionally made to defer decisions. The point of a shop assistant is that he or she asks you what you want and you are expected to have an answer. You then make your transaction and leave. Without an assistant, you need never answer; you can drift and browse and, like the frozen shoppers in Ikea, never leave. Companies exploit this by promoting impulse. Packaging is made complex and seductive; eye levels are watched and analysed; thought processes - which things you impulsively buy at a checkout, for example - are imagined. The idea is that people must buy far more than they need, much more than they even want.

This has produced, as Bowlby notes, a literature of shopping as alienation. She mentions Ian McEwan's novel The Child in Time, in which a child vanishes in a supermarket, as well as a prophetic extract from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, in which he attacks circulating libraries for causing brains to be afflicted with a "trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose".

But the intellectual's horror of the shopping experience must also confront the consumer's delight. However manipulated they may be, people love shopping; and, without some solid, paternalistic sense of what they should be doing instead, it is difficult to know why anybody should argue. Bowlby does not mention the new Bluewater centre in Kent, but she should. The sumptuousness and corporate ideology of the place is, in my experience, unique. And it works. People are at peace with themselves and with each other.

Bowlby should also have dealt with the phenomenon of Wal-Mart, now the biggest retailer in the world which is, via Asda, invading Britain. Wal-Mart's history is co-extensive with the entire history of retailing and, because of its size and increasingly global reach, its future may well be the future of shopping in general. But if this book is not complete, it is certainly full of evocative and entertaining material. Shopping needs many more such conscientious chroniclers. It is what we do and, increasingly, what we are.

Bryan Appleyard's Brave New Worlds: genetics and the human experience is published by HarperCollins (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - Lord Falconer