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Raffique Shah


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'Hobbing with the nobs' is debt-dealing

December 10, 2006
By Raffique Shah

I kept wondering for some time now how long it would take Starbucks, the upscale coffee chain, to start doing business here. Last week I read where some local entrepreneur indicated he'd cornered the franchise. I guess by next year Trinis who did not know of Starbucks before would be flocking to the coffee house. A few years ago, in London, I had my first encounter with it. While I sipped an over-priced, under-flavoured "cuppa", I observed the behaviour of customers in this consumer-driven ambience. I found it very revealing.

It's a paradise for "gapers" and for those who like to be seen at such establishments. In the main, the customers were young-from students in their 20s to mid-to-upper-level social aspirants in their 30s and 40s-many of them no doubt stretching the limits of their credit cards just to sit in Starbucks. Unless one is a coffee addict, which is bad for one's health anyway, what can justify so many people flocking to this and other, similar "joints"? I saw people absorbed in their laptop-screens, seemingly oblivious to everything around them, except the "hot cuppa". Others were gossiping, giggling, or speaking non-stop on their mobile phones, and most of all sipping cup after cup of a range of coffee brews.

For me, nothing that they served there (I did not try more than two of their brews) can remotely compare with a steaming cup of Hong Wing, prepared "just right", as Sprang would say. And without advertising for the local company that has built a reputation over decades, I dare say its coffee is superior to most of the major brand name brews whose only forte is their high prices. People believe if you pay more for something it follows that it is of better quality than cheaper products. Experienced shoppers will tell you that quality is not always dictated by price.

But we are not dealing with smart shopping here. We are faced with an advertising and promotion-driven commercial sector that can easily turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. Take ice-cream as another example. Haagen Daas was introduced here a few years ago, and some people who profess to be connoisseurs swear by the expensive foreign brand. I can be an ice-cream freak at times, and I can vouch for the scrumptiousness of the B's, Willie's and Flavorite brands. Also, although I'm no beer drinker, I don't know that a $10-plus Carib at upscale sports bars is any better or colder than what one gets at much cheaper prices at Nari's or Chris'. Note that I have thus far dealt with selected, non-essentials. But this class-driven spending is behind the creeping consumerism that will lead us into galloping inflation and the valley of personal debt.

With Christmas mere days away, shopping madness has gripped the country more than it did over the past few years, merchants are saying. Whatever their complaints about steep increases in food prices, and in most other consumables, people are buying even if it means going into credit card debt they will find difficult or impossible to repay.

In developed countries, mostly the USA and Britain, personal debt, bankruptcies and broken lives that follow are tales too woeful to tell.

In a recent lead article in the New Statesman headlined "How Shopping Became A National Disease", staff writer Lynsey Hawley delved into the shopping mentality in a very incisive way. She stated that by September last, Britons had racked up 151 million pounds in credit card debt. That whopping sum did not include cash purchases or other debts like mortgages or purchasing vehicles.

In a book by Oxford professor Ayner Offer (The Challenge of Affluence) that deals with unbridled consumerism, the author wrote: "Prudence has built up affluence, but affluence undermines prudence."

While real affluence is confined to a small percentage of the population in any country, those who hanker after the values spawned by the wealthy are the ones who "shop till they drop" and end up not being able to meet their debts, or having to sacrifice everything else to so do. Over-spending at overrated establishments, and on overrated "brands", also leads those who cannot resist the temptation to "buy, buy, buy" into deep trouble. The numbers of Americans and Britons who are declared bankrupt rise every year. And they come mainly from the ranks of the poor and middle income wage slaves.

There is nothing the Government can do directly to stem this wild spending that has overtaken the country. People will simply say it's their money, even if it's borrowed, and it's their right to spend it on what they want.

In Trinidad where "hobbing with the nobs" is a national pastime, upscale establishments will continue to relieve the foolish of their hard-earned money. It's why, as a recent study showed, two per cent of people command 50 per cent of the world's wealth while 50 per cent command a mere one per cent. Need I say more?