Brit-tendency is to beaver away at the periphery of a problem, hoping some day to arrive at the centre. Americans prefer to identify the heart and aim first at that, leaving side-issues to resolve themselves. But, something in the British character and nature feels happiest with an oblique approach. It is not that Brits do not understand the needs to be done. It is not that they can’t identify the priorities. They can – but something gets in the way … a built-in resistance to direct action, and radical solutions. Some say that they lack ‘a killer’ instinct. This may be because solving a problem inevitably means change; tampering with the trends of events, and cutting up rough. Often, Brits opt instead for a cosmetic operation. For example: if the problem is massive and widespread youth unemployment, Brits will fund a camping and adventure scheme for inner-city kids. If major city hospitals are overcrowded and underesourced, stop-gap measures will encourage pregnant women to give birth at home. Brits perpetually rush to plug dikes and contain disasters, without contrasting causes.
This is partly, of course, a question of economics … but not entirely. The Brit-approach is never revolutionary – and they are flummoxed when requied to wipe the slate clean, and start again, much preferring to ‘hang it there, and make the best of a bad job’.
A huge urban housing-project takes many years to build. As the first stage is completed, certain problems become apparent: i.e., heating isn’t powerful enough, water-pressure’s too low, insufficient laundry facilities for residents.
1. attempt to rectify problems in Stage Two;
2. go back and improve Stage One as time and money permits.
1. complete the entire project as planned;
2. then go back and correct all the mistakes: ‘it’s fairer to everyone’.
In classic, fundamental Brit-think, when something begins to go wrong, you keep doing it. This is called ‘perpetuation of mistakes’. To change mid-way is irresponsible, ‘un-British’. One must see things through. It’s a sort of technological charge of the Light Brigade. It also accounts for:
1. the development of a national telephone system which wholly failed to standardize area-codes. Users dial different (and unpredictable) numbers of digits for every area in the country;
2. an electrical system which makes impossible the sale of goods complete with standardized plugs for standardized outlets;
3. milk delivered to families only in space-wasting pints, and never in quart containers;
4. heavy coin currency in small denominations (2p, 10p) which wears out pockets and weighs down handbags. Then, the introduction of unconvincing pound coins which quickly get lost.
British and American personnel are present in stores for entirely different reasons. Yanks are there to increase their take-home pay by making commission on sales. In this, they are helped by their store’s inventory policy. Let’s take women’s fashions. If a customer sees something she likes, chances are that it can be found in stock in her size, her colour. If not, it can be located at a nearby branch, and sent to her branch free of charge. If not, her branch will ‘special order’ her choice direct from the manufacturer. One way or another, the sales person will get the item and make the sale, even if she has to walk to the warehouse. After all – she has 3% riding on it.
British salespeople are very attached to merchandise, and try hard to keep it in the store. They will not part with goods unless forced. For example, if you ask for a particular size, they will:
1) ignore you;
2) point in the direction of a rack across the floor, without breaking off their conversation long enough to acknowledge you;
3) snap, ‘if it’s not out, we haven’t got it’.
If you positively insist on buying something, the in-store system will force you to queue for ages at a crowded till in order to pay for it. They’ll take even longer to OK the purchase on your credit card, so as to discourage you for next time. And they will never, ever agree to refund or credit anything, unless threatened with the full weight of the law. Brit salespeople believe in strong deterrents for recidivist shoppers ... and they make sure that the punishment fits the purchase. They are visibly relieved if you just go away. They’re not, after all, there to sell. They are there to talk with colleagues about last night’s date, and you are bothering them.
Brits are somewhat oppressed – even intimidated – by salespeople, and tend to shop apologetically. They don’t like to be trouble to anyone:
‘Awfully sorry to bother you ... do you have this in a size 8?’ Men suffer particularly from shopo-phobia, and will do anything to avoid contact – never mind confrontation. They are obedient and inhibited customers. In shops, they rush to purchase the first garment or pair of shoes produced, and hate asking to try other sizes or styles. They shop only when forced by circumstances, and never for pleasure. They are push-overs as consumers, since they will buy anything – literally – just to get out of the shop.
Brits are mortally embarrassed by salespeople. This is because, being polite people, they have never learned how to say ‘no’ to them. They buy things they don’t want because they lack the finesse required to extricate themselves from situations. And, since they know they’ll be trapped, they avoid entering shops altogether. Even normally dynamic Brits are utterly compliant customers... putty in the hands of M&S’s most junior assistant. Their mouths cannot form the crucial series of one-syllable words, ‘no-thanks-I-don’t-like-it’. Salespeople know this, and exploit the advantage ... taking Brit-consumer’s money, secure in the knowledge that they’ll never, ever be asked to give it back.
Yanks, as the world’s most dedicated consumers, sport a series of shopping-related badges and bumper-stickers which read:
1. WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, THE TOUGH GO SHOPPING
2. WHO SHOPS WINS
3. IF YOU THINK MONEY CAN’T BUY HAPPINESS, YOU’VE BEEN SHOPPING IN THE WRONG PLACES
4. SHOPPING IS MY EVEREST
5. MORE IS MORE
There is nothing more satisfying to them than the sense of achievement and control that comes with Purchase Power. There is nothing so gratifying as a good fight in a store – which they inevitably win, since America’s customer is always right. American women fight for recreation in Saks much as they play tennis or visit museums.
They have no psychological problem with salespeople, who are there to serve. They address them without embarrassment, since, in America, everyone’s selling something anyway. Yes, everyone shops, and shopping is the Great Equalizer. It’s the Consensus Society extended to the Consumer Society.
For Yanks, shopping also has a healing and therapeutic effect. Shops are where you fantasize about the future, and try it on for size. They’re where you put the present together, a piece at a time. If life is about Having It All, shops are where you get It. But, most important of all, shopping is about control ... i.e., if it’s my money, I get to get what I want. Including the treatment I think I deserve. Stores are places where money puts you in charge, and you can make sure you get what’s coming to you. When you shop, you should ideally purchase victory. It’s good for the soul.