Spare a thought this Christmas for a much-abused group: high-street retailers. Forget all those pictures of crowded sales-shopping and the slight improvement in figures from malls and 'shopping villages', their overall position is still precarious, and that of high-street shops even more so.
The consumer recession drags on, and this year an unseasonably mild autumn (when no one bothered to buy winter clothes) gave way to violent gales (when no one could travel).
Discount signs came out like a rash in every window. And alongside this meteorological bad luck, the brief Christmas window that often provides shops with the whole of their year's profits is undermined ever more by online shopping. High-street visits continue to decline.
Maybe the online boom was inevitable. Most of us use the internet with gratitude, do a fair few purchases on it, and win back time for work and family. What is enraging to retailers, though, is the behaviour of many of those who visit shops on the high street only to abuse them.
One habit is 'showrooming', when the customer visits a real store (which shoulders very high business rates, plus lighting, heating, security, insurance and maintenance costs, not to mention salaries).
The showrooming customer spends time examining and handling some appliance or gadget, and asks a lot of searching questions of the assistant - who is probably young, has been trained - again at some cost - and has honest hopes of a good career. The assistant demonstrates or explains it, with all its gizmos and buttons and built-in apps and programs. Then the customer mutters: 'I'll think about it,' and promptly goes home and orders the same thing online for a few pounds less. Some may think that is clever. I think it's mean.
It is not, however, quite as mean as the disgusting habit of 'de-shopping', which some women, in particular, openly boast or giggle about. l This is when you buy an outfit or hat and wear it once, carefully, for a party or special event (tucking the price tag out of sight or investing in a way of reattaching it). Then you return it to the shop and get a full refund. This is plain fraud, in effect hiring an outfit free of charge!
Less dishonest but equally problematical for the retailer is another habit often boasted of, in which people go round the shops on Saturday and buy things they cannot afford, just for the pleasure (and the 'soothing', one person said) of having lots of bright, smart, branded carrier bags to take home, like a lady of leisure. They own the expensive outfit for a few days, then take it back for a refund, as they always intended to. They budget for this financial bounce, so as not to max out the plastic. They think it's a clever compromise with desire.
But the shop, meanwhile, has borne the cost of the smart carrier bag, the tissue paper and fiddly pins, its staff's time, the complex administration of money and the distortion of it figures that must now be amended.
Apparently, in the US some retailers award 'premium status' cards to customers, not for being especially extravagant, but just for having a clean record of never bringing things back unless they are actually faulty.
Yet when women talk about their shopaholic quick-return habit, it's jokingly to bewail their own status as 'victims' of a harmless addiction.
And yes, it does seem to be more women than men who carry on like this. It's enough to make you ashamed to be one.
High-street shops of all sizes are fragile. We will miss them if they go: there is something grim about boarded-up frontages, streets looking like gappy rows of teeth, stark and threatening.
When only charity shops on low rates and gloomy, chaotic pound shops are to be seen as you walk through your town, it feels less safe, less civilised, less social, less adventurous, less joyful.
It has happened already in some places. It will happen in more, for many economic and political reasons. But those who cheat - even if they don't shoplift - are nudging their towns downhill.
Hear hear! I thoroughly agree. And would add to the above the people who think it's perfectly OK to steal glasses from pubs - don't they realise that it's the landlord who's had to pay for them. Removing glasses from pubs is STEALING!
From an article by Libby Purves in the Sunday Telegraph, 29 December 2013