On the Commodity Trail: The Journey of a Bargain Store Product from East to West. Alison Hulme. Bloomsbury. February 2015.
‘Euro shop’, ‘pound shop’, ‘dollar store’. The name varies but the premise is the same: commodities sold at low prices. For many the relationship with the ‘bargain’ shop is fraught by love and loathing. Loathing is prompted by the cheap nonessentials, and the thought of the sweatshop labour that produced them. Love comes from the pursuit of a bargain, and the smug feeling that we have not been exploited.
In boom times discounters seem reserved for the terminally cheap, or those whom prosperity has overlooked. But what of their place in an era of austerity? Historically, according to Alison Hulme, times of decline were not like the present: saving back then meant not spending. However, she tells us on the first page of On the Commodity Trail, this current ‘age of austerity’ is not like its predecessors. Now cheap and plentiful helps maintain levels of consumption seen during the boom, and cements individual mantras of “consumption is good”. For the businesses involved this means “chasing growth through smaller and smaller profits”.
If our age is “characterized by the desire for immediate gratification, disposability, the fragmentation of old systems and the rise of China” then, she asserts, the commodity chain of bargain store products “is a classic trail of our times”. Hulme subsequently takes the reader on a journey across the life cycle of eight bargain store commodities: a pet gravestone, a pregnancy test, a garden gnome, a plastic bonsai, a model Buddha, plastic flowers, a Chinoiserie vase, and a ship-in-a-bottle. Hulme’s inspiration was the early twentieth century work of the German philosopher and cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, and his Arcades Project. However, unlike Benjamin’s focus on the “bijou objects of bourgeois Paris”, she opted to create an ‘Arcades Project’ of the pound shop.