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I was in Exeter city centre yesterday, enjoying soaking up the pre-Christmas atmosphere, and generally having a good mooch around. (I am rather delighted, and somewhat smug, to announce that it was for pleasure only, not Christmas shopping, as I actually completed that two weeks ago. Ahem.)

The wonderful Exeter Christmas Market was going strong on Cathedral Green, a local brass band were playing jazzed up versions of ‘Jingle Bells’ and the mood was just as you’d hope for with only ten days to go until Christmas, but as I was wandering through the streets and shopping precincts, I found myself taking a long hard look at the shops that were represented there. In Exeter, we’ve got some fabulous independent shops; from the gorgeous Inside Out to Gandy Street’s veritable banquet of fabulous indie establishments, such as Moko and Mounts Bay Trading Co.

But largely, as with any city, our retail areas are dominated by the big name shops, the huge corporations, such as John Lewis, Top Shop, H&M and Marks and Spencer. I’ve nothing against these stores in themselves, after all, the likelihood is that they themselves, once in the mists of time, were once independents, who made it big, and fair play to them.

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However, I found myself musing, why do we, as consumers, seek to buy mass produced products? I popped into H&M (no mean feat with a buggy and an offspring that likes hanging his feet directly at 90 degree angles from the front of the pram, ensuring he manages to knock virtually everything off the shelves) and found myself gazing at row after row of carbon-copy clothes;  with women grabbing at them, left right and centre (and of course, my youngest son…)

Then I found myself thinking of Exeter’s brilliant Fore Street; where all our vintage shops are; where you can easily find ‘one of a kind’ garments, at prices that are comparable, if not cheaper than the main branded shops. It seemed baffling to me, all of a sudden. In fact, I did literally find myself momentarily rooted to the spot, surveying the fracas as shoppers seized indistinguishable item after indistinguishable item, stunned by the strangeness of it all.

I started trying to ponder out the motivation of it. And I had a few theories. They may be wrong. But none the less, here they are!

1) Clever emotive advertising. I noticed, in all of the shops, that they each had prominent photos on all of their walls. There was a pretty common theme. All young, beautiful people, wearing the clothes of the shop, of course, but very much selling in an ideal way of life. A lifestyle rather than just a piece of clothing. Primark’s theme for this Christmas, with their models in hilarious onesies etc, was on fun, of being young and quirky and ‘having a laugh’. Top Shop’s seemed all focues on ‘geek-chic’ – of solemn faced young Adonises with NHS specs, peering into the lens as though earnestly entreating you ‘buy the clothes, and you too can be as gorgeous and effortlessly cool as us’. With supremely skilful marketing like this, how can any of us resist those kind of non-verbal promises?

2) Perceived value for money. All of the stores had their ‘basics’ range, which almost seems akin to telling us that we completely, totally NEED these things in our lives, and without them, we’re literally living without our necessary basics to survive. Which is, of course, when you stop to think about it, utterly ludicrous. They of course, often push their sale items heavily too – cramming the clothes on to tight rails, giving us the strong message of ‘these are our very last ones, our exclusive, last chance to buy items, get in quick!’ Which of course, helps us to conveniently forget that they are churned out in large-scale factories, and can easily be replicated, should the company want them to be. (Remember, the reason they are in the sale is because they don’t sell so well and need to be got rid of.)

3) Teeny-tiny Mannekins. Wow – I studied the mannekins in H&M (I’m sure they’re not the only ones to do this, I’m not picking on them personally!) and had to have a little laugh. They were minute. I’m not a big girl myself, but when I actively forced myself to compare my physique with these impossibly slim mannekins, I realised my body was WAY bigger. And I’m a size 10. Does this send a rather horrid message to us all, saying that, if we purchase their clothes, it will miraculously transform us? Make us slimmer than we ever thought possible?

I don’t blame any of these big stores, after all, they are just doing what any business does to some degree, they are actively pushing their products to gain maximum sales. But I am curious as to why we all seem to fall for it. It’s basically propoganda, when you stop to think about it.

By contrast, the independent store tends to be more about offering a more authentic experience. When I pop into the indie stores of Exeter, I find myself greeted by people who care about their stuff on a personal level, and who genuinely want you to love their stuff as much as they obviously do. Imagine if those high street stores were instead dominated by local designers, individuals who were thrilled to offer their designs that they had hand-made and spent ages working on, rather than just made manufactured in a factory in China?

Perhaps its just a dream…but wouldn’t it be lovely! I don’t think Father Christmas is going to give me that one this year though…!

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