Wednesday 24 December 2008

I went Christmas shopping in Uxbridge this afternoon. It will come as no surprise that I fall firmly into the ‘hate’ camp when it comes to Christmas shopping.

The packed shops and tat are, of course, thoroughly upsetting. As every piece of pointless plastic bleeps through the checkouts you can almost hear the ticks of the clock counting down to peak oil. Or is it the patter of Jesus’s tears, powerless in this wishy-washy New Testament climate to smite the pricks who have hijacked his official birthday? Anyway, tick, plop, tick, plop.

Then, there’s the piped music. Christmas music is some of the most execrable entertainment to have been produced by our absurd species. I have some time for a select handful of Christmas carols (Good King Wenceslas, In the bleak midwinter, that kind of thing; solid tunes combined with a high regard for human spirit which ignore religion until the final verse), but the versions of these piped by shops are normally performed by the screeching, tone-deaf bint du jour or ineffectual boys’ choirs with voices so breathy that the rendition sounds more like a group exhalation than music.

However, there was a delicious, sweet cherry on the thoroughly disappointing, stodgy cake. The dreary, dismal horror of a retail Yuletide was thoroughly overwhelmed by a single experience: a festive saunter through the dystopian wasteland of Woolworths.

Woolies was never the classiest of joints, but there’s nothing like financial destitution to turn a chain from tacky and tawdry into filthy, boxes-everywhere madness. The fabled pick ‘n’ mix rattled, empty, with only the shit sweets no-one eats (evidently butter mintos, baby crocodiles, fizzy fish and tragic shards of once-large pear drops in a snowdrift of sugar) left. You could, however, pick up a whole 4 kg brown cardboard OEM box of incy wincy fruit for twenty quid. Evidently the tornado of shoppers had descended too fast for Woolworths’s understandably depressed staff to restock.

My girlfriend knelt down and started rummaging through a basket full of spare bulbs for Christmas lights. ‘Oooh, a couple of these might be useful!’ she suggested. A man crouching in front of us rummaging through a similar box span around, eyes wide and mad, like a zombie disturbed as it picks through some tasty entrails. ‘They’re mine!’ he hissed, flinging another couple of packs of lights in and pulling his basket defensively towards himself. We apologetically backed away.

This little cutscene illustrates two phenomena. Firstly, it shows the low level to which Woolworths’s standards had slipped: products lobbed haphazardly in boxes constitute point of sale presentation, reducing customer expectations to the extent that an abandoned shopping basket looks like a viable display. Secondly, though: what a strange class of vultures the Woolies closing down sale seems to have attracted. Why would one man want ten or twenty boxes of five spare Christmas light bulbs? Is he very unlucky? Is he determined to keep his fuse-busting ancient Christmas lights which fizzle and crack every time he takes them near a wall socket going until his death, probably at their unearthed hands? Did he miss the physics lesson about series circuits and therefore think that if your lights stop working you have to replace all of them? Was he going to make his own Christmas contraption from scratch using only tinsel, paper fasteners and an enormous number of spare bulbs?

Across the shelves were plastered helpful labels which explained how to work out the prices given that almost everything in-store was reduced by 50%. If something is marked £10, that means it’s actually £5. Simple, eh? Well, even simpler if you’ve got a handy tabular reference to guide you in your bargain-evaluating mathegymnastics. Some of the signs claimed that the knock-down prices included the 2.5% VAT reduction. However, I hope that Woolies are continuing to charge VAT in one last ‘fuck you’ to the nation’s consumers who supported them so poorly, and the management will pocket the difference. Which the eagle-eyed will observe is −47.5% in this case.

And the maths nerds will hastily point out is actually −48.913…% because percentages, like VAT holidays, are stupid.

I picked up a large tube of pink Smarties on a particularly disparate display which, under any other circumstances, I would have assumed was some kind of reduced shelf for slightly damaged goods. The small, pink, bead-like confections spilled out of the bottom like a nest of vile insects disturbed from their cool hiding place under a rock.

It’s a great shame that in their wisdom the managers had not decided to turn off the heating and lighting in store in one final cost-cutting drive. In the fading light of an overcast December afternoon, the store would have been gloomy to the point of slightly dangerous, and the circling punters, slavering for a bargain, would have been left in the dark and cold to crawl over one-another, spitting and hissing, like a strange cold-blooded undead, as filthy, thick, stinking liquid dripped from the ceiling in this cave of former commerce.

A large chain of shops has never gone bust in my lifetime, and so I’ve never been to a closing down sale which was anything other than a wolf-crying scam. Should it happen during yours, I can thoroughly recommend it: like the return of Halley’s comet or a total solar eclipse, it is worth waiting up for. Indeed, if you’re quick, you can feast at Woolworths Group PLC’s last supper—but, worth more than the meagre savings on shit you almost certainly wouldn’t have bought anyway is the experience. You will understand how a shop, briefly disconnected from the supply grid, turns into a barren expanse of off-white shelving. You will see that our retail system is fragile, transient and weak before the might of market forces. And you will wonder whether humanity, so easily driven crazy by the smell of cheap crap going for even cheaper, should be in the driving seat of the free market.

The answer is ‘no’, you idiot.

Merry Christmas from


  1. I have many fond memories as a child of the 80’s going to the Uxbridge Woolworths. Spending Christmas and Birthday money on various toys and Sega Games (which they left in their boxes for the longest time in their infinite wisdom). It was a big treat for me to go there as a kid.

    But it was terrible what it had become, someone pointed out to me that they had been trouble for many years, just looking at how tired and dated their early 90’s wood panelled shop designs had become from lack of upgrading and refurbishment.

    But Woolworths had turned into a Jack of all trades, just master of none.

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