The phrase ‘Sale Now On’ is more often present in shop windows than it is absent these days. Apparently, we don’t buy anything unless we’re convinced we’re going to get a bargain – at least, that’s what the advertisers seem to assume. My confession is that these days I live in bafflement at the time, care and attention that some spend on the pursuit of ‘getting a good deal’. Perhaps it’s simply a consequence of having small children, that I’ve got enough to do without trawling round five shops to find the cheapest kettle, or even spending an hour on the internet in the same pursuit, but secretly I think it’s just because I don’t enjoy the process of shopping. But why would that be? And am I the only one with this dark secret, or are there others hiding in far flung corners of the country? And what is it about the hunt for a good bargain that does interest some people so much?
I think my major difficulty with searching for the best deal is knowing that no matter what I’m trying to buy, I’m being lied to. Oh, probably not overtly (at least most of the time), but in the subtlety of not including quite all of the information about the product, or of emphasising certain qualities relating to it whilst hiding the unfavourable ones. It’s tiring, trying to work through the fog of lies and get to the actual truth about the thing; and it’s insulting to my intelligence to assume I’ll fall for the idea that there is such a thing as the perfect product. Then there are the constant lies about making savings; buy two get one free! Well actually, I only needed one, but now I’m going to pay double the amount of money because it sounds like good value even though I don’t need the extra two.
Last and worst are the lies that are far more personal and deeply influential, because they weave stories about me and the kind of person I am without the product, and what I can become because of buying it. They are powerful and invasive, and can have long-lasting and damaging effects. Can I really only be beautiful if I spend a fortune on a beauty regime? Am I really only a good housewife if my house is as clean and tidy as that one on the television? Is it unattractive to have grey hair? (Of course not!!). Will my family be happier if I take them on that particular holiday? We are subtly led to believe that products are capable of achieving what, in truth, only internal maturity and wisdom can achieve; a healthy, content life and the strength to cope with what storms are thrown at us along the way.
So where does the urge to engage in bargain hunting come from? This question draws me back to the process of bargaining (or haggling, if you will) that used to be the standard form of transaction in the exchange of goods. This changed to a great extent at some point, probably within the last half-century, when fixed prices for stock were introduced (at least in larger retail outlets and chains). Perhaps it had something to do with the introduction of computers to the retail industry – I suspect so, at any rate. But it sometimes almost feels as though the constant sales to which we are enticed are the new form of haggling: we’re starting with this price, but only for fourteen days and then it’ll be selling at a much more reasonable rate because we know so few of you will like that price. In the process of hunting for bargains, therefore, we engage in haggling by choosing whether to purchase the item now or to wait until its price is lowered. Shrewd shoppers will have a good idea of whether or not to buy: I’m afraid I’m not one of them!
Perhaps the inclination to bargain is so deeply rooted in our psyches because it is simply a continuation of something that we have done since before recorded history. Computers have been unable to rid us of our most basic instincts. Of course we look for value in the things that we buy; of course we want to get the best deal for our money; we do it because we want to look after ourselves and also those for whom we are responsible and who we care about. We prefer not to be lied to because it makes the whole thing so much more difficult, but we have to accept that whether simple or complex, whether only about the product or attacking our very sense of identity, the lies will always be present. Learning to discern them and reject the effects they have on us, now that’s the work of a lifetime.