Monday, December 21, 2009

2009 Holiday Newsletter


As a described in my previous post, every year I write a Holiday Newsletter and send it to some of the people on my mailing list for holiday cards. As newsletters go, it isn't very helpful; it doesn't, for example, describe the highlights of the year. It's actually more likely to focus on a single low point, though I don't restrict myself to any established format or style. I've decided this year to extend my Holiday Newsletter to my extended blog “family.” Enjoy.

December 2009

Happy holidays to your whole family!

I hope nobody is bothered that I didn’t say “Merry Christmas.” My greeting simply acknowledges that there is no single official holiday in this country. Accepting all winter holiday traditions would seem to be a classic example of American freedom. But really, there’s a limit on this freedom: we’re not exactly free to ignore the “meaning” of the holiday, whichever one(s) we do (or fail to) observe. I feel this way with most of our holidays … at the end of every Memorial Day, for example, I get this creeping guilt that while I enjoyed the time off, I didn’t spend so much as a moment thinking of our fallen soldiers.

With this nagging pressure already upon me, I was struck dumb upon entering Macy’s, on the day after Thanksgiving, to see (among the garish fake evergreens) a giant sign reading, “Believe!” The sign was repeated throughout the store—part of a major holiday shopping campaign. Since the only things I actually exhort my children to believe in are Santa and the Tooth Fairy, I took this pretty hard—almost as if the signs had said, “J’accuse!”

Can’t I get through a holiday without having to tap my spiritual side? I have to admit, I kind of envy the British, with their simple “bank holidays” that are just totally free days off with no strings attached. If I’m not mistaken, the English even have a “flip-all day” (though they don’t say “flip”—I’ve made a word substitution, this being a family newsletter). But this envy is an affront to my already battered patriotism, so I’m feeling the need to defend my country by criticizing England. As time off from work and increased retail activity seem to be the two things all winter holidays have in common, in this holiday newsletter I’m going to explore another nexus of time off and consumerism: my harrowing experience shopping in London during our summer vacation there.

The difference between the retail experience in the US vs. the UK is largely a matter of ideology. The US approach is “The customer is always right.” We’re wooed, coddled, pampered, and encouraged at every step. The UK approach, on the other hand, as with so many aspects of British life, seems to be “Soldier on, and keep your chin up.” It seems the Brits would rather showcase their famous stoicism than actually have a good experience as consumers.

Americans have no stomach for things like inconvenience or poor value, and our retail providers know this. Dignity and civility are not expected, or even encouraged, among American shoppers. Consider this text from a Kleenex box: “Say goodbye to the stiff upper lip. Tell calm, cool and collected to take a hike. When tons of stuff stuffs up your nose, blow it loud and blow it proud!” (The French text on the same box, ostensibly targeted at French-Canadians, is much tamer; instead of the stiff upper lip part it merely says, “Vous ĂȘtes bouchĂ©?” which roughly translates “Are you stopped up?”)

This difference in approach was evident throughout our time in London. First, the lack of wooing: we received no junk mail at the house we were staying in, and only one flyer was left on the porch, from a place called US Pizza. We could have stayed out of the malls entirely except for a little mishap we had in the bathroom. There was no bathroom counter, so when Alexa was done getting a drink of water, she left the glass balancing precariously in the sink, where I tipped it over, breaking it. Not wanting to be a bad houseguest, I immediately set out to replace it.

Back home, I could have walked to a local mall and had a pretty good chance of finding a Bathroom Drinking Glass Emporium. Failing that, our local Crate & Barrel Factory Outlet would have a number of glasses to choose from, all of them fortuitously on sale. But this was no ordinary drinking glass—it was designed to sit in a chromed steel ring that juts out from the bathroom wall (a needlessly clever solution to the simple problem of English sinks not having counters). So this glass had to be larger at the top and then taper down, like a little shelf, so the narrower bottom part would go through the ring and the glass would nestle securely in the ring. But even if Crate & Barrel didn’t have glasses like this, the entirely cheerful and apologetic clerk would offer to order one for me, and since they get deliveries from the other store twice a day, I could stop by later that same day and pick it up. And if the other store didn’t have it, why, they could get one from China within days, and it would just so happen to be on sale for only a few dollars.

But this was England, and nobody I asked seemed to have any idea where to buy such a thing. They looked at me like I was asking where to buy a replacement laser prism for a 3-D hologram machine that hadn’t been invented yet. A couple of people recommended Marks & Spencer, so we headed over there. It was a pretty nice department store, though the whole place had just two restrooms, both out of service during our visit. I found the housewares department and described to the clerk what I was looking for: a small drinking glass for the bathroom, that sits in a little ring that sticks out from the wall. The clerk looked at me like I was crazy. “Now, what is it?” she asked.

I described the glass again, mentioning the larger diameter at the top, and drawing in the air how its sides taper in so the ring will hold it. She assured me there is no such product in existence. So I went hunting for it on my own, and found it right away. I brought her over and showed her. Instead of admitting that my description had been spot-on, and wondering aloud how she could have been so dense, she said, “Oh, you’re looking for a toothbrush holder!”

I thought it would end there: I figured I’d buy two glasses for maybe $10 or $15 total, and be on my merry way. (I needed two, because our hosts’ bathroom had two ring/glass sets, and the new glass wouldn’t match the remaining old one.) But it turns out Marks & Spencer doesn’t sell the glass part separately. You have to buy the whole set—the glass, the ring, and the mounting bracket—for £25 (roughly $45 after the murderous exchange rate and usurious credit card fee), meaning the pair would be about $90. I naively asked, “Can’t I just buy the glass separately?” She looked at me like I was daft. “Why would you want to do that? she asked. I explained that I’d broken a glass, and she looked taken aback.

This shouldn’t have surprised me, but we hadn’t been in London for very long and I hadn’t yet realized that Brits evidently never break anything. My first exposure to this strange phenomenon came at the grocery store when Lindsay knocked a jar of something to the floor and it broke. Other shoppers gasped and stared, like a meteorite had just come plunging through the ceiling and bored several feet into the floor. When I was a kid, and my brothers and I clumsily broke something in a store, we thought little of it (even though we were craven types given to persecution mania). We’d even compete to see who could best mimic the bored “Wet cleanup, aisle 3” that came over the PA system. But here, I almost expected a Hazmat team to arrive in radiation suits, and for my whole family to be fitted with scarlet letters before leaving the store. We felt the same way after breaking a drinking glass at a London restaurant a few days later.

I asked the Marks & Spencer clerk if there was any way she could sell me the glass by itself, since it was all I needed. “But you see, it’s sold as a set,” she reiterated patiently, as if talking to a small child. I asked what I would possibly do with two extra rings. “You could keep them as spares,” she said. I guess she figured that anybody hapless enough to actually break a glass toothbrush holder is capable of breaking anything.

My search lasted two more weeks, becoming a central theme of our vacation. Half the people I asked were as mystified by “toothbrush holder” as by my description. Finally we found a housewares specialty shop in Ealing that could order just the glass. It seemed like a fairly high-end place, but I figured not paying for the metal hardware would keep the price relatively low. Of course they had nothing in stock, but could order it. “It’ll take about three to four weeks,” the clerk said breezily. When’s the last time any consumer item took that long to get in the States? Still, we figured if the price were right, and it could be shipped directly to the house there, that might be okay. But then he told us the price.

As you’ve doubtless observed, when something costs a lot in the U.S., the clerk generally eases you into the news carefully, sometimes employing fancy names like “timepiece” or “eyeshade system” to reinforce the value even as the quote is delivered. But the English housewares guy cut right to the chase and said, as casually as could be, “It’s £80.” £80?! Was he out of his mind? What’s it made of—crown jewels? That’s like $145, for a fricking drinking glass, and I’d need two of them. What did we look like—billionaires? I thought I was going to have a coughing fit.

Finally, days before the end of our stay, after hours of searching online, I found a place called B&Q in Acton Town. It was on a far-flung subway line, in a dreary part of the city along a loud highway, and when I got there I realized it was kind of the English equivalent of our Home Depot chain. Why anybody would want to emulate the most god-awful of all American retail establishments is beyond me; perhaps it seemed an irresistible challenge to out-awful us while putting the famous British forbearance to its ultimate test.

At least B&Q had a few toothbrush holders to choose from. I found a relatively cheap one, but it was crudely made of cheap plastic and might as well have had “POXY RUBBISH” embossed on it. I’d given up the dream of finding a glass for sale without the hardware, but did discover a glass/holder set of decent quality for about £20. The trouble was, they only had one left and I needed two. I didn’t bother fantasizing about buying the display model (much less at a discount), but I did toy with the idea of stealing it. I could just shove it under my jacket … but of course I wouldn’t do that. I didn’t much fancy spending the final days of my vacation in an English prison, even if it is the birthplace of habeas corpus.

Thus, I had to go home empty-handed and make another trip to B&Q the next day. Customer Service had promised to hold two of the toothbrush holders for me, but when I arrived, they hadn’t the foggiest idea what I was talking about. Luckily, because the toothbrush holders came in bright orange boxes, I happened to spot them on a shelf behind the Customer Service desk, and pointed them out. With a look that said “Boy are you stupid!” the clerk begrudgingly handed them over.

Now I felt I was truly in the home stretch. All that remained now was paying up. I went to the self-service checkout, scanned the boxes, and got out my credit card. Alas, right away I came up against yet another obstacle: their payment system only accepted chip cards. I didn’t have £40 cash on me—that’s a lot of foreign currency for a tourist to carry two days before heading home. But before I even had a chance to complain, a cashier had appeared. I figured word had gotten around about the clueless tourist: “Better go help out that American bloke at checkout. He’s a right dozy blighter, bound to cock things up completely.” I explained that the POS terminal wouldn’t take my card. “We don’t take credit cards,” she said blandly. I handed her my debit card. “We don’t take this either,” she said. She seemed almost relieved, as if accepting my payment would be some kind of defeat.

I asked if she meant that they could only accept chip cards, not magstripe. She looked utterly nonplussed, like I’d asked if her mother had problems metabolizing Technicolor herring-liver pustules. So I asked her what the problem was. She stared at my card and said, “It doesn’t have one of those … things.” Suddenly I noticed that she was holding a fancy wireless payment card terminal with more features than the basic self-service one. (Given my line of work, I have specialized knowledge of these devices.) I grabbed it from her and said, “Look. Have you ever noticed this thing up at the top here? It’s a magstripe reader.” I swiped my card and completed the payment. She continued to stare blankly at me, like, “Just look at this bloody plonker. Americans are even bigger eejits than I thought.” But I didn’t care, because I was done! I made my way back to the house, installed the new glasses, forbade my kids to go anywhere near them, and got on with my life.

So. To summarize the differences in retail cultures:
USA: Believe!
UK: I can’t believe this!

Whether or not you manage to invest this holiday season with satisfying spiritual reflection, I sincerely hope you have an enjoyable time. And if, like me, you don’t take particular pleasure in the consumer aspect of the season, take heart: at least in this country you’re always right!



  1. Too true, too true. And now check out a view from the other side at:

    Sarah in Glasgow (via Laura and Dave in Santa Rosa)

  2. Great link, Sarah! A very well-written and enlightening read. Thanks!