This weekend, I went on a shopping expedition to a popular Belfast shopping centre. I more often shop online, but just this once, as the Autumn sunshine made the indifferent summer seem a million years away, I spent a couple of hours in the shops.
I'm still confused about what happened. I've always thought that we're defined by what we buy. At the weekend, I'm usually the anonymous 'jeans/top/jacket/comfortable shoes' person who's invisible in a crowd... not quite chainstore but not quite designer either. Eternally anonymous. This time, though, I longed to disappear.
It started slowly: feeling I had no choice but to provide my postcode, 'so we can add this to your previous purchases'. Later, in a well-known cosmetics shop, I knew the product I required; thinking I could save the assistant some work, I lifted it from the shelf: mistake. A wide-eyed, mildly terrifying lady, clearly wearing a little of every single make-up product of that brand, appeared. Feeling cornered, I asked if I might pay for the item: I felt sure I was about to be accused of trying to steal the desired anti-ageing night cream. Presumably shoplifters must find it hard to sleep at night? 'Can I just ask a few questions first?' she asked, eyeballing me with emphatically outlined eyes. Transfixed, I agreed. Did I use other products from the brand? Which ones? How often? What moisturiser was I wearing today and what kind of make-up? When I found myself apologising that neither moisturiser nor make-up were from her brand, I stopped. I mean: hold on. This lady was demanding information, at machine-gun speed, which my closest friends probably don't know. Such details usually remain between me and my order history or loyalty card... and then suddenly I understood, as I suggested that I thought I had enough loyalty points to pay for something which probably couldn't make up for the sleep I'd lose over the interrogation. The shop assistants simply personified invisibly accrued online records, much in the manner of the stand-up routine which demonstrates online social networking in terms of face-to-face contact. 'Can I be your friend? Can I follow you? Can we connect?' Such requests seem so much odder - scarier - when delivered face to face, and this was just the same.
Cashing in my points for a phial of exhaustion concealer, I was asked for my address, my mobile number and my email address. I was informed that this was obligatory; with an appraising glance, I was also offered the opportunity to have my skin analysed, in something called a 'five step consultation'. What was next: my family history and my DNA? I declined, with a certain terror that they'd get me afterwards. Is buying cosmetics now as responsible and serious as taking home a rescue pet? Could the beauty consultant turn up in the dead of night to check whether I've applied it properly, or stored it in an adequately luxurious bathroom cabinet?
Later, in a fashion shop, things reached their peak. After my unsuspecting husband had been asked about his day's shopping by an assistant who'd spotted an Apple Store bag, and had bemusedly entered a conversation about protective iPhone cases, I chose something and, once again, surrendered my postcode and email address. Then came the culmination of shopping intrusivity: my personal pet hate. 'Are you treating yourself?' There are shops to which I've sworn never to return because I've been asked this. Why do shop assistants feel the need to humiliate shoppers by making them feel greedy? Acquisitive? Shallow? Is this the 2015 equivalent of the Belfast of my childhood, where bags were searched in security checks as you entered every shop? Quite honestly, I'd prefer to proffer my bag for searching, assuring the shop Gestapo that I'm simply an ordinary shopper, and if I want to 'treat myself' to a subtly sparkly blue jumper as a mini-reward for a gruelling month at work, I don't need to apologise to them, or to my friends and family members, because I'm buying it for myself. Is it really such a culpable act?
Suddenly, as I left, it all made sense. The phrase Shopping Expedition always makes me think of Paddington Bear. Paddington goes Christmas shopping for pyjamas; thinking he's gone into a fitting room, he has instead entered a shop window decorated as a bedroom. A crowd gathers, watching as he puts on the pyjamas, climbs into the display bed and falls asleep. So far, so adorable. So far, so serious, though: in a 2015 shopping expedition, I was asked for my email address at every transaction but one, my postcode every time, my mobile number twice. I was interrogated about beauty products and felt implicitly chastised for being selfish. I became too exhausted and dispirited for a customary rant about seeing a Christmas window display in September: I felt just as under scrutiny as that loveable Peruvian bear...
Maybe we are defined by what we buy, and where. Maybe we are what we wear, whether that's our face cream or our clothes. But does that really mean that we should have to give an account of details which our closest allies mightn't know, just to liberate an item from a shop, which is dependent on people buying stuff? You shop, therefore who are you? - oh, and can I just get all your details?
It was a relief to put on my pyjamas and climb into bed that night. Unseen. In darkness. And no: I'm not telling you whether I applied anti-ageing cream first.