Sunday, 30 November 2014

Penguins, Bears and Hares! Oh my!


Nobody wants to admit it? Fine. I'll go first. 

I think John Lewis is shit. 

I understand this is hard to take for a lot of people. It was a shock for me when I first came to this opinion. It's a bit like learning that Santa isn't real. There's the brief moment where you bury your leaky face into your pillow as you can't believe you've been taken for a fool all these years. But when you open your eyes, only light will stream in, and you'll realise that life is marginally better now that your Christmases can no longer be built on a foundation of lies.

Speaking of which: "This is perfect, you owe me an Orla Kiely hand towel", I'm told by my girlfriend, holding an Orla Kiely towel in one of their stores.

This is a lie on two counts. No, it's not perfect, and I don't owe her shit.

"Yeah it looks quite nice." I reply, "Feels nice too! Don't we have one by Orla Kiely?"
"Well, when you were cleaning the bathroom, you decided to get bleach on the it, and it's ruined, so you need to buy this one." 
Intently looking at some rugby scores, I must have made some nodding sort of action which signalled that I had agreed to buy something which, as of yet, I haven't even properly looked at. 

"Brilliant, thanks James, now how much actually is it?... Oh that's alright, that's not as bad as I thought."
Woah, hold on - what the hell does not as bad mean? Suddenly I realise that I'm holding a towel that's exactly the same as its barely marked predecessor, and its cost has been described as not bad? I need to do something that mildly resembles making a stand! 

I look at the price.
"I'm not paying that much for a fucking hand towel." (Because it can't hurt to simply charge in headfirst into a dispute.)
"Alright, if you find something better than this, we'll get it instead." 
"Well how about this one? It's a store brand one, it's just as soft, just as nice, and about a third of the price."
"....hmm... No, it's just not as good. I can't explain to you why, you don't understand, but it's just not. Just get the Orla Kiely one."

This is the first problem with John Lewis. The store's own-brand stuff, pricey though it might be, is bloody good. I'd be over the moon to have a John Lewis hand towel in their bathroom. I'd pop it out when guests came over, and take good care of it, and be proud of it. But because they've plonked other-branded stuff next to their perfectly good stuff, it now looks like a knock-off piece of crap. So not only am I paying more than what is acceptable for a hand towel, I'm not paying more than more than what is acceptable. I've been double-done by John Lewis. Bastards.

Treat this as an intermission, but with no fucking 
stupid faux-love story forcing you to buy a toaster.

"Oh my god!" squeals an excited voice from beside me. "There he is! Oh my god this is amazing! Can we get a picture?"
A picture of who? I wonder. A famous celebrity? A sports personality? Is it a national statesman? An old friend?

As it turns out, in the corner of the store, surrounded by a lot of plastic painted to look like ice, stands a lone bit of plastic painted to look like a penguin. 


We walk over to where the bits of plastic are, but are unable to get particularly close to it, as every infant in a 20-mile radius has had the same idea as us. Which brings us to the second problem with John Lewis. 

Those fucking adverts. They're beautifully made and the stories in them are fantastically told. It's not so much the adverts themselves, it's the way we absorb them. The two-day trend on Twitter, the constant Guardian articles, the fawning over it on Facebook. We have created a monster, which very kindly is only making us want to buy things. If next year's advert subversively told us to storm Buckingham Palace and overthrow the monarchy, it would be beamed to an already willing audience, ready to die for the John Lewis cause.

Joseph Goebbels, Propaganda Minister for the Third Reich, once allegedly said that the most effective messages are conveyed with 90% fiction, and 10% truth. Hold on, I'm NOT comparing John Lewis at all to the Nazis, but how much would they realistically have to alter their adverts to inspire the nation to carry out despicable deeds? We're already halfway towards pledging allegiance to them. We're just lucky the worst thing they're going to make us do is buy some extortionate hand towels - for now. Did you know the Tom Odell song this year started with "All my little plans and schemes"? Yeah, that's why we need to start worrying. 

We continue our magical Christmas journey through this sacred British institution, and towards the menswear - and swiftly through menswear, because I'm not as stupid as everyone else. I know a stitch-up when I see one, and I'm not being taken for a fool. Anything in this store, I can get cheaper elsewhere. 

Actually, that bag looks quite nice. Ooh, it's Barbour. Ooh, and there's 20% off all Barbour stock. That's not bad. 

Out of nowhere, a John Lewis salesperson, disguised as my girlfriend, pops up. 

"You've been talking about having a bag for ages, this looks perfect for you, oh and it's only [a fucking shitheap of] pounds. Ooh, and there's 20% off, so that would make it [a shitheap of] pounds."

Hmm, I have a shitheap of pounds, I was paid on Friday! This might actually work. And it is a nice bag... And it is 20% off... Oh, go on then! 

But, moments later at the till, what's this? 

"That's [a fucking shitheap], please."
Excuse me, Lady at Checkout?
"What, no, it should be [a shitheap]"
"Hmm, sorry Sir, it's coming up as full price"
"But there's a sign on the shelf that says 20% off all Barbour stock?"
"Err, the sign probably just says 'on selected stock', do you still want it?"
"pffff, yeah whatever then, I'm here, you're here, I'll pay for it."
Oh well, so it was a fucking shitheap of pounds, but that's alright, it is a really nice bag. 

As we walk out, we walk past the shelves where the bags were. My girlfriend checks the sign again. 

"Oh my god, they just fobbed us off, it does say on all stock! Let's go back and dispute it."
But that will cause a fuss, won't it? I'm not a fussy kind of guy. I've worked in hotels and shops, I've seen people cause fuss. I've dealt with people who kick up fusses, and I can say that each and every one of them is a certified cunt. 
"No, let's go back, they were just lazy and didn't check the facts. We've both worked in retail, it's what's right."

Over we march. 

"Hi again!" the lady at the checkout says sweetly. I've banned myself from talking - I won't be responsible for this fuss. 
"Hi," my girlfriend takes control, carrying the sign that confirms our consumer rights, "the sign does say 20% off, so you have to honour that promise."
The lady is unperturbed. 
"See, the bag is exclusive to John Lewis, and it says here '20% off all full priced stock compared to other stores', and it's not in another store."
"Doesn't matter" my girlfriend rumbles on, "it's under the sign, it's misleading if the product is right there next to it."
Something is going to give.
"I'll get my manager."

A boy roughly 12 years our junior in a suit waltzes towards us. 
"What's the problem?"
The lady explains the situation, which the manager mulls over for ten seconds. He doesn't want to fuss. 
"Yeah, give them the discount."
Good man.

"Just pop your card back in here, Sir."
If there is such a look for sheepishly smug, I am suddenly the embodiment of it, despite doing nothing.
Even as we walk away, I mumble something resembling "thank you". A look is returned which says "this has only happened to you because your girlfriend has a spine, you slug". 

Well, so much for their famous customer service, eh? What about the historical niceness of their staff? It's no better or worse than any other store. At least we've got our own back on one of them. Oh, and now her manager is barking at someone to do something. He doesn't look happy. Wow, now two of them! Power to the people!

But in reality, we have no power over John Lewis. It is the epitome of what is wrong with consumerism. It's not like Tesco, or Sainsbury's, which is filled with things you need, such as food, water and some things you want, like batteries for the TV remote. Instead, John Lewis is half-crammed with things you want, and half-crammed with things you didn't even realised you wanted until you saw it there with a "20% off" sticker on it. It is a warehouse full of waddling middle-class adults who are unhappy that the TV adverts have opened up "their little secret" to the masses, as if suddenly the store had unveiled a partnership with Poundland and a deluge of delinquents had descended on their precious fortress. 

For most of us, it remains an aspirational symbol. If you can buy something in John Lewis, it means you've made it. For most of us, visiting the store is a bit like watching one of their adverts. Yes, it's really nice, and it makes you feel good, but the X Factor will be back on in a bit, and soon as we step outside of the bubble, our shit lives will continue. It's only a very select few, that stay inside, and don't look out.

As we prepare to re-enter the real world, a barely-movembered teenager is removing all the "20% off" signs. It's catching the attention of quite a gaggle of middle-aged, middle class women.

"What, so that's it? Just like that, no more discount?" one splutters, holding a blouse that's just risen in price by a fifth before she can even blink. 

Don't worry, dear. You'll be never knowingly undersold.