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Consumer confidence at its best

The Irish Times
Opinion, August 15th, 2007

Sales of SUVs are up, consumer confidence is down and, in other news, my cleaning lady, Maria, went home to Romania for a few weeks and came back with a new set of porcelain teeth, writes Quentin Fottrell .

She gritted them to show me. Clearly impressed, I said, “Wow!” which encouraged her to open her mouth even wider. They are beautiful, and natural, too. Like Madonna, she cleverly kept the gap between the upper two she was born with.

I don’t have middle-class guilt about having a cleaner. (On the contrary, it’s bloody great!) I do have middle-class envy. She has a Hollywood smile; I still have my old teeth and painful whitening strips. But we understand each other. I started on £11,000 a year in London but, like a good little immigrant tourist, I was a regular in Harrods. I didn’t have reason for consumer confidence, but that didn’t stop me.

We have been indoctrinated to have the same aspirations, Maria and I, as we watch Dallas on UKTV Gold. “Dallas? Very nice,” Maria said one day, as Sue-Ellen took another swig of bourbon. That was another thing we had in common. We both like a bit of glamour. She likes silk headscarves; I like cashmere sweaters. But we’re not stupid: we both love Lidl.

“Lidl? Very nice. Cheap!” she says. And that’s good enough for me. Unlike the dreaded Iceland, it has fresh produce, great parma ham, reasonable cheese selections and all kinds of everything. Everything except the brands we’ve been brought up with. This is what football teams and toothpastes have in common: they get you when you’re young. Once your choice is made, you are hooked for life. I use Colgate. Always have.

Some brands are like mother’s milk to us and, sure, not all Lidl’s are successful. Its cheap razor blades were too good to be true. Unless we return to sharpening cutthroat razors like our grandfathers, Gillette will remain one of those recession-proof brands for men. But this is no reason why so many customers at my Lidl are foreign. This is partly because it’s an urban area, but people have SUVs to get there, don’t they?

It is possible to debrand. Neil Boorman, author of Bonfire of the Brands: How I Learnt To Live Without Labels – published by Canongate in the UK next month – did just that. He lived without Gillette, advertising on TV and even made his own toothpaste. After years of being addicted to brands, he was free. He decided not to forgo his mobile phone. He used a recycled handset, which he got for £20.

When the National Consumer Agency (NCA) published its first national comparison of grocery prices recently, it left Lidl off the list. It only compared Dunnes Stores, Superquinn and Tesco because they do the same brands. It says it will do another list with Lidl and Aldi, but it was still slavishly trying to compare like with like, and buying into the snob value of these brands by limiting its study. While the NCA said convenience stores are up to 20 per cent dearer than the big supermarkets, ValueIreland.com found the big three supermarkets are up to

25 per cent more expensive than the more taboo Lidl or Aldi.

We should be secure enough in our skins to embrace our inner yellow packer, not live in fear of it. Sarah Jessica Parker was reportedly seen in Lidl in Donegal. That should be enough for us lemmings to follow.

Even Eddie Hobbs, a walking, talking brand, is part of this sale of the century, though his Yoda-, sorry Yeddie-like philosophy relies on gombeens who buy stuff on hire purchase and have multiple credit cards. His You & Your Money magazine has ads for furniture, timber floors and Scandinavian-style chalets with an orange glow, beckoning to be filled with your happiness.

Hang on. Wasn’t he supposed to be saving us money? Yes, but . . . What could be better for mortgage brokers, estate agents, insurers, security firms, lighting showrooms, landscapers and – last but not least – building societies, banks and online spread betting companies than to hitch their sails to his trusty pole? It’s not enough to keep up with the Joneses – we must keep up with the Dow Jones, too.

My cleaning lady may have the taste for the high life, but she is too wily to fall for stunts such as I’m Not a Plastic Bag, the limited edition “green” accessory by Ana Hindmarch. It was like the fall of Saigon when it went on sale in Dublin and Cork. Hindmarch cancelled launches in Beijing, Shanghai and Jakarta citing “concerns for customer safety”. Like, what are we like, like? I want a bag all right. A sick bag.

I don’t begrudge Maria her new chops. She could have saved for a Smeg oven or a Chevrolet, which advertise in Hobb’s magazine, though a new motor is a bad financial decision as it is a rapidly depreciating asset. (Sorry, Yeddie.) Let us hope that when Foxrock Fannies realise SUVs are really the preserve of the socially insecure, rather than giant baby tanks, they will go the way of Burberry check.

Still, I’m glad Maria didn’t spend her money on a new kitchen. They say that you can’t take it with you. But, at least in the case of porcelain teeth, you actually can.

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