The glamorous but high-pressure life of an Idealog writer can mean long hours. I don’t mind really – I love my job after all – but the long working days can sometimes mean that I don’t get to spend as much time with the kids as I’d like.
So it often happens that, on the weekends when I’m looking to make up for lost time, I’m willing to spend a little bit more money than I otherwise would, willing to give the kids a cheap thrill at a store of their choosing, all in the interests of getting the most bang for buck from our time together.
Last weekend was one of those weekends, so we found ourselves, once again, at the mall.
Ahh, the mall. How I hate it. The soulless sterility of it all, the food is always terrible and it's always full of people who don’t cover their mouths when they cough.
Nevertheless, the children, and my wife, seem to enjoy it well enough, so I’m usually willing to go with the flow – some of the time – if only in the interests of playing happy families.
And so it was last weekend. We were just leaving the food court and I was kicking myself for once again having been sucked in by the Chinese buffet – a classic mistake I seem to make again and again. Having had more than my fill of sweet and sour something or other and now digesting a large side of self-loathing, we were making our way towards the exit, when we rounded a corner only to be confronted by the most retina-blasting shop façade I’ve ever seen.
Seemingly overnight a new chain store had popped up, shocking in its garishness, all lurid pinks and purples. (These colours, I now believe, serve as a warning to unwary mall-shufflers like myself, in a similar fashion to those Amazonian frogs that display their toxicity via striking but deadly conspicuous colour-markers).
I shielded my eyes, as one would from the light of an oncoming train, and read the sign above door: ‘Smiggle’.
The name didn’t ring a bell or give any clue as to what the store might sell, and neither did the shop-front, really. From a branding perspective however, these guys were going all in.
If branding could be described as ‘aggressive’, Smiggle would sit somewhere between a bull terrier wearing a leather jacket and a boxing glove made of live bees. Their stores are day-glo explosions of pastel colour, so intensely committed to their on-brand shtick that the little details, such as what they actually sell, seems to be, at very best, an afterthought.
My kids didn’t know what Smiggle sold either, and they didn't seem to care one iota, because seconds later I was dragged by the wallet into the gapping maw of this technicolour abomination.
Once inside, the dazzling colours only intensified, but I could, at least, now see just what was being peddled – which was a whole lot of nothing at all.
Let me explain.
Smiggle describes itself as the “world’s hottest stationery brand” and I suppose, in some sense, that’s accurate: it’s all heavily-branded pens, pencils, rubbers, lunch boxes and the like, displayed in a way that makes the whole thing look like the demon love-child of a Hello Kitty marketing meeting and the guy who orders stuff for the $2 Shop; a temple to the worst of our consumer instincts, commodity fetishism made literal, the utter triumph of style over substance.
If you’ve ever bought an item of stationery just because you were bored, stay the hell out of Smiggle.
I was thinking these fancy thoughts, and I flattered myself that my wife might like to hear them, maybe something along the lines of how, in places like this, the relationship between the consumer object and its means of production are purposefully denied to obscure the huge social injustices on which the whole system operates; or perhaps how retail display is often grotesquely fetishized, imbuing worthless plastic junk with a totemic value it could never actually possess; or perhaps how these pretty, useless trinkets are presented in such a way so as to provoke an impulse to buy that is almost irresistible but completely disembodied from the actual item being purchased.
You know, that sort of thing.
My pontificating was not to be however, because by now my family had deserted me and were going ape-shit for all things Smiggley.
My daughter dived into the pens, my son into the schoolbags. My wife muttered something about starting to collect novelty erasers again.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter Smiggle.
The children had found shopping baskets – baskets! There ought to be some kind of law about that – and spent the next 15 minutes filling them without an economic care in world.
In one corner of the store my daughter was dropping boxes of Smiggle-brand AA batteries (2 packs for $5) into her basket like she was picking apples. My son spied a display of eraser gumball machines ($23) across the store and made his own move. I reached out to restrain him, but he slid out of my grasp and was gone.
Children, it seems, are faster than they look when they’re in a Smiggle store.
I shot the girl behind the counter a pleading look that I hoped said something along the lines of ‘How do you people sleep?’ She shrugged in a way that seemed to say ‘We get a lot of that look here’.
Seconds felt like minutes and minutes felt like an eternity and soon I’d had as much as I could take.
“Alright kids,” I said, in an unexpectedly calm voice I'm actually still quite proud of, “now it’s time to go.”
The kids, intuiting that they had just pulled off the greatest robbery of their short lives actually obeyed and willingly presented their baskets to me, the Man with the Iron Wallet.
“Why are you sweating, Daddy?”
“Daddy doesn’t feel well,” I said in an upbeat manner, smiling through gritted teeth.
We went up to the counter. The young lady behind the register gave me a look I’d seen only once before – as my GP was snapping on a rubber glove – and she rang up the bill.
And I paid. Oh, how I paid. Quarter of an hour in Smiggle had cost me about the same as a dinner for two in a decent restaurant, but it was over at least.
Bags in hand, we were ejected back into the real world. My little consumers looked spent, satisfied in their looting, and I was very much in need of a lie down.
I read somewhere that neither BMW dealers nor drug pushers go out of business during a recession. Something tells me Smiggles don’t either.
Later that night, as I was tucking my daughter into bed, I noticed that two of the Smiggle pens I had so recently paid good money for ($20 for two) had made their way out of their Smiggle pencil case ($35) and across the bed to join the other flotsam that lives in perpetuity between her trundle bed and the wall. (I’ve never been accused of being a clean freak and neither have my children).
“What was the favourite thing you got from Smiggle today, sweetheart?” I asked, a loaded question if ever there was one.
“I don’t even remember what I bought,” she laughed. Daddy gnashed his teeth and turned out the light.
As a species we are terrible at judging the value of things in the heat of the purchase-moment, and retail stores are designed to exploit this fact. What percentage of the junk we buy comes down to the fact that our impulse to possess can be manipulated to trump our better instincts to only possess what we actually want?
This is a question I ask myself often, and it may make me an absolute misery to go shopping with, but I don’t end up with an expensive pile of junk I don’t want either.
But maybe I should just take a puff on my inhaler. Kids are kids and they’ll learn their own lessons in their own time. And who am I to judge? I may not be particularly attracted to nicely decorated, overpriced stationery, but I’ve certainly made plenty of terrible economic decisions in my time. Hell, today is payday and I’m thinking of making one right now, so I suppose one wallet-dashing trip to Smiggle isn’t really that big of a deal.
We all deserve a harmless thrill once in a while, and I suppose that’s all Smiggle really is.
Not a cheap thrill, mind you, but a harmless one, and certainly a very, very empty one too.
Smiggle’s greatest hits:
The Smiggle Eraser Gumball Machine $23
The Smiggle Projector Pen $10
The Smiggle Soccer Money Box $35
The Smiggle Lockable Fluffy Note Diary $23
Smiggle-branded batteries 2 x $5
This article was originally published on Idealog.