Shops are struggling. The fortnight before Christmas, and the January sales that follow, will be even more crucial than usual this year to retailers hard-pressed by falling sales and online competition. Footfall in November was down 3.4% on the same month last year. Shopping centre investment in the UK has fallen by £5bn in six years, as a succession of household names have either gone bust, closed branches or negotiated rescue deals. In September, Marks & Spencer dropped out of the FTSE 100 for the first time since the index’s launch. Around 85,000 jobs have been lost in the past year (many of them by women). It appears likely that retail space across the UK will be converted to leisure and residential use on a large scale.
Many shoppers (or would-be shoppers) are having a hard time too. Although wage growth is stronger than it was in 2017-18, the continuing squeeze on public sector pay, housing pressures, insecure work and benefit cuts mean that what is portrayed as a season of indulgence will be stressful and difficult for far too many. Being able to buy things over the Christmas and New Year period is important. Most people, whether or not they are Christian, want to be able to celebrate with friends and family over special meals and to give presents, especially to children.
That said, Christmas presents, and the experience of buying and giving them, can arouse strong and mixed feelings in many people: gratitude, pleasure, generosity, but also annoyance, disappointment, dismay. The association of Christmas with excess is double-edged. Packed town centres, armfuls of bags and huge piles of parcels can be viewed as thrilling in one light (and rare is the child who isn’t excited by the prospect of new stuff). But in another light it can all seem thankless, tawdry and excessive. Even seeing children ripping open packages can lose its charm when the contents of the previous one have been hastily cast aside, a brand-new game has broken or its packaging takes up more space than what was inside.
This ambivalence is not new. Finding the right balance between giving and receiving, gratification and greed, has always been complicated. But concerns about sustainability, particularly in relation to plastic waste and fast fashion, and about growing inequality and homelessness, have given criticism of Christmas added piquancy. Since it has long been understood as the acme of consumer culture, it is hard to see how this could not be the case. There is a sense in which reduced shopping overall should be welcomed by anyone who cares about the future.
So far, though, there is scant evidence that this is what is going on. Over the past year, consumers have played a vital role in keeping the economy going, with Black Friday reported to have been “outstanding”. Instead of disappearing, retail sales lost on the high street have migrated online, with an almost 9% overall rise in the past three years – and some of the jobs lost on high streets replaced by work in distribution centres and delivery vans.
But if “peak stuff” remains an idea more than a reality, that doesn’t mean that the much touted rise of experiential gifts is a fiction. Data suggests that people are choosing to spend a greater proportion of their income on doing things than getting them. If some of these activities can take place in struggling high streets and town centres, so much the better. Public spaces thronged with cheerful people and festive lights are one of the most attractive aspects of the season. We need busy community spaces the rest of the year round, too.
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