I said to a friend recently, what a great time of year this was for oniomaniacs. She replied: “That’s ridiculous, you can get onions all year round these days.” So, to avoid any similar misunderstanding, I had better elaborate.
Oniomania is the compulsion to buy things — more often than not, things one doesn’t actually need. Many of us understand the thrill of a new purchase, the buzz of a bargain, or the vicarious joy of staring covetously through designer windows, but hopefully draw the line at spending all our rent money on a pair of red soled shoes.
As part of the new series of What Women Want, I made a programme about shopping. Retail therapy, fashion fixes, impulse buying, beauty must-haves; there are so many attractively sanitised terms for spending. No one ever says, “Do you fancy going into town and handing over money for some non-essentials?” as that would be the biggest shopping buzz-killer since that hamper company went bust and ruined Christmas. I wondered would we find enough material to fill an hour of television. How wrong I was; we could have filled six hours. From asking why sales of designer handbags are on the rise, despite our salaries plateauing (or disappearing altogether), to looking at the new wave of disposable fashion (many women buy cheap clothes for holidays and simply leave them behind). From the ease of online shopping, where the tills never close, to the tricks that retailers use to make us shop longer, faster and harder. Have you ever wondered what happens to the clothes we tire of and leave in those huge clothing banks? And what kind of person thinks unwashed underwear is an appropriate donation (I kid you not).
When it comes to oniomania, most of us are not shopaholics and don’t spend beyond our means, but there’s no doubt that at this time of year, the retailers up the ante and turn the purchase pressure dial up to maximum. Stocking fillers, festive table accoutrements, ¤200 advent calendars (you know who you are), Christmas party clothes, and all the unnecessary tat the shops line up beside the tills in the same way they used to target bored kids in the queue with sweets. It’s the Disneyland interactive queueing concept with a consumerist twist; give them something to look at whilst they wait and they might just throw another few things into the basket.
The Christmas Eve dash is a frantic, annual, retail race against the clock, and its fans are predominantly male. My father worked in his family’s convenience shop in New Ross during school holidays and remembers well the fear his mother would have that the boxes of chocolates they had ordered in for Christmas wouldn’t sell. To have them on the shelves in January would be a financial disaster. But every year without fail, my dad would sell the last box on Christmas Eve to a local man on his way home who hadn’t yet bought a gift for ‘the wife’. Today, major retailers still plan their seasonal stock around this traditional trend.
It’s not sexist to say that, in general, men and women shop differently. Apparently, it goes back to our Neanderthal ancestry (which isn’t that far back for some people I could name). Men hunted, which was about the quick kill, getting the job done efficiently and swiftly. Women gathered, which involved browsing and taking however much time was needed to find the right foods and the ripest fruit. Getting it wrong on either side could have catastrophic consequences.
Apply these rules to the shopping habits of modern men and women and, in most cases, they still apply. Men are often in and out, and if something fits, they’ll buy one in every colour and that’s them done for a season. Women prefer to meander, consider several options, make a day of it if they can, even if they end up buying the first option. And before anyone bombards me with tweets about their husband who can happily spend hours in TK Maxx, or their girlfriend who would rather pull out her own toenails with a pliers than walk around a shopping centre, of course, these stereotypes don’t apply across the board. But walk down any high street or through any super mall and you will see the evidence laid out in all its shiny glory before you. And if you do find yourself conforming to stereotypical shopping habits this Christmas, blame the cavemen.