Revenge of the Shoppers


British capitalism is a strange beast. It’s simultaneously at the cutting edge, and yet hidebound by tradition and cornered through lack of skills. For instance, it’s induced into hilarious mini booms and busts by a national adherence to monthly, rather than fortnightly, pay cheques yes, that’s right most people here still use chequebooks.

And in the retail sector, EFTPOS was only introduced this year and do not expect anything as ‘modern’ as customer service while shopping in Britain. When it comes to clothes, you can expect to find a good quality dinner jacket for $100 or a bikini for little more than $10. But this is also a country where a McFeast meal will cost you $13 and tasteless mass-produced supermarket chicken comes in at roughly $30 a kilo.


The overriding theme is that the customer is not king the customer will get what they’re given, and not with a smile.

Until now.

The first hint of something funny going on was the voucher in my computer inbox from a well-connected PR friend offering ’30 per cent off GAP.’ One pair of dark jeans and a miraculously flattering shirt later (for $55) later, and I considered myself a lucky Christmas shopper.

But in the tradition of Demtel steak knives, there was more! The vouchers kept coming. For 10 days now, anyone with a computer has been bombarded with them. With guerilla intensity, community-minded shoppers have been pooling little known promotional codes and vouchers originally intended as ‘special gifts’ for suppliers, premium customers and the families of staff and pumping them out to the masses. The bigger stores are now (depending on your perspective) colluding with or surrendering to this hijacking.

For the most part, retailers have been powerless to stop it from happening. Their previously lazy terms and conditions are actually the cause of this shopping frenzy, and in these grey drizzly days before Xmas the rest of us have little else to do but shop.

Thresher one of the leading bottle-shop chains in Britain looks set to become a case study   for Marketing courses around the world. Their current ’40 per cent discount’ offer has been downloaded by millions in the past week far beyond the intended reach of 25,000 quoted by one franchisee I spoke to.

Like Jesus’s two fish and five loaves the Thresher voucher went nuclear. I got it on Wednesday afternoon and shared it with 20 online friends instantly. Soon, like a skinny Santa, I was handing out colour copies. Thresher was fast becoming a legend. Even The Times, once staid and venerable as the official record of Empire, offered the voucher as a web download.

Previously ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ (Mark 6:34), my friends quickly realised the potential to assert themselves in this new consumer-focused environment. My flatmate’s $500 Thresher plunder is like new furniture in our apartment we now own a wine library, with one bookshelf making way for a year’s supply of red, while my bedroom doorway is a Hardys Wines-induced fire hazard.

Saturday saw me venture to Wapping, the gentrified and cobbled former dock suburb in East London to investigate the front line of the discount wars.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Gone are the days of Oliver Twist and Minder in Wapping even Rupert Murdoch’s union busting is a mere footnote these days. Instead we have Frank, who runs the local Threshers the new face of this nation of shopkeepers. And scrawled across his front window on Saturday was the sort of miserly message one usually expects in British retail – a new rule the Thresher voucher only counted if you bought a minimum six bottles. The franchisees were at the barricades.

Frank was moaning as soon as I opened my mouth. ‘No one warned us about this, no one knew it was coming. It’s mad. We can hardly cope,’ he raged. ‘Michael who runs the Liverpool Street store has a major wine tasting this week and it’s going to be overrun. Just look at this mess!’

Looking behind me half expecting to be trampled like a Liverpool football fan or Baghdad bystander I could see only air and two cases of wine waiting to be stacked. I was the only customer in the shop.

Office workers had overrun other stores the previous day, but the wider truth is that Thresher had been running a ‘3 for 2’ offer on pretty much everything in the store before the voucher ‘crisis’ descended. So the 40 per cent discount was really only 7 per cent more.

What does this prove? A cultural laziness among both buyers and sellers is in the process of transformation.

‘I felt like I was doing the bloke behind the till over, as I handed him my voucher,’ was how one 30-year-old work colleague described his Thresher experience. Maybe so, but at least he acted. And he acted because the 40 per cent discount was enough to motivate even the shy, the busy and the posh. The response also exposed just how much harder Thresher staff could work and how much cheaper they could sell their wine. At zero notice, and little pain.

Too often British people are afraid to ask for, or do anything, more than what is explicitly required of them in any given transaction. From the Monarchy to the House of Lords to an all-pervasive Welfare State, the majority of Britons have been taught an unquestioning dependency that’s not fit for 21st century life.

Yet Britons love both shopping and collective action and this link offers the country a way out of its lazy mentality.

Whereas in Australia our reality the beach, backdrops and sun is a distraction, in England they need a distraction from reality. Shopping is everything here. Four million people (nearly 7 per cent of the population) are still in debt from splurges last Christmas.  Selfridges, the glam department store, operates on the slogan ‘I shop, therefore I am,’ and they capture the mood perfectly.

So, instead of being the embodiment of selfish individualisation, these vouchers have tapped into the unrealised potential of this generation’s sharing ethic mobilising Briton’s new wealth and numbers in a way we haven’t seen before, and dragging Christmas retail into the black along the way.

The Queen might still be on the throne, but the customer is ready to join her. Now, if they could just keep the supermarkets open after four o’clock on Sundays

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.