I think I was about 12 the first time I saw QVC on television; most likely they were selling jewellery or cleaning products, after all, you need sparkly rings when you’re scrubbing the floors all day. The presenters had a real knack for whipping up a panic as the number of items available for sale diminished before your very eyes. Like an illusionist accomplished in the art of misdirection, the presenter ensured we were all so focussed on calling in before it was too late that there was no time to consider if we actually wanted or needed the product. Combine that with the assertion that the item is a real bargain, many times cheaper than normally available, and the pressure was almost too much to bear.
Back then I used to work on a Sunday market selling all sorts of things for 50p each; my first proper job. The market stood on an old airfield and was huge; you could easily spend all day there and not get around it all. I loved watching the Del Boys of the day hawking the latest vegetable peeler or tomato slicer – you weren’t sure if you were buying it because you could always do with a new vegetable peeler or because of the free salad spinner that was being given away with it. Either way, both the vegetable peeler and salad spinner would soon be gathering dust at the back of a kitchen cupboard. It didn’t seem to matter.
The 50p stalls drew crowds because everything was so cheap and it was manically busy from the moment the market opened until late into the afternoon, especially at this time of year. Unlike QVC and the vegetable peeler men, we didn’t need to artificially limit supply in order to generate demand; there was plenty for everyone. Years later when Nick and I discovered the hyakkin, or hyaku-en (100 yen), shops all over Japan it brought back all that sentimentality. The Japanese have a word for it: “Natsukashii” a word that is notoriously difficult to translate into English, but for me it describes perfectly how I felt remembering all those Sundays with punters buying by the bucket load because the bargains were too great to ignore.
Of course QVC thrives in Japan too, and embarrassingly I’ve got a couple of dusty boxes in the loft that stand testament to the fact that you don’t even need to understand what is being said, to feel that urge to pick up the phone.
Here in the UK, Black Friday is a relatively new phenomenon – it might have been around last year but this is the first year that it has really made the headlines. That combination of low prices and limited supply reigniting those old feelings of panic as websites crashed under the strain and senior citizens who had inadvertently gone out for milk were crushed in the scrum for cheap TVs. Disappointment littered Facebook’s news feeds as we all began to wonder what on Earth had just happened.
And then, following a weekend of muted shame and embarrassment, we woke up to another newly designated annual event: Cyber Monday. We have to assume that by next year, these will be followed by Embolism Tuesday and Whiplash Wednesday. Oh joy.