Deal Or No Deal

I don’t do ‘deals’. In fact, I actively avoid them. Two for ones, three for twos, meal deals, anything involving a coupon – please remove them from my sight.

But on a daily basis these things are thrust in front of every purchase I make and I have to actively opt out, to the disbelief of many a sales assistant. Let’s take Boots or Sainsbury’s – I can’t ever get to the tillpoint without being asked to go back to pick up the extra item for my unexpected three-for-two deal. What if I don’t want or need a third thing? What if I don’t want a packet of crisps with my sandwich and drink? On these occasions I enjoy standing my ground and just letting the sales assistant look really shocked as I insist on just two of the three items. In fact, I always feel like donating the third thing to them. I pity them, because they are The Type of Person Who Can’t Say No to a Deal.

I am not this type of person. I know, that for the majority of so-called deals, there is a catch. If it’s a Groupon deal (god, how I loathe them), then you have to drive to somewhere in Northampton for a lesson in sushi-making at 5.30am just to get ‘the discount’. If it’s a two-for-one meal, they’ll add a supplementary charge on to the drinks, and magically your bill will be the same as if it was for two people. If it’s a theatre ticket, then the theatre will have already increased the original price of the seats that are suddenly promoted as discounted. If it’s an airport version of your favourite mascara in a three pack, they will have less mascara in them and run out three times as quickly. Fact.

I think my three years in retail buying probably removed the mist from my eyes. We were always putting things on special offer that we had to sell at a fake higher price for a month before the special sale kicked in (this was the legal requirement). Then the product would be marked down to the promotional price – which was in fact the original ‘real’ price, still with a 150% mark-up for the store.

Then there was the product that looked the same as the original brand product but was a de-specced version. It cost the manufacturer less to make, it cost us less to buy, we could offer it at a ‘bargain’ price, but in fact, it was a sub-standard product. Hello John Lewis towel sale (awful quality). I let myself down by buying some JL towels last Christmas and spent the next month brushing little bits of cotton off me as they slowly fell apart in my hands.

I believe this is what happens to airport products – the perfumes, mascaras, blushers and eyeshadows are just not quite the same as the ones you can buy elsewhere, not to mention the books. Anything you buy in bulk – in a three-pack or multi-pack – you’re just not getting the same product. Better to to buy it in normal Boots, really – and run the gauntlet of the three-for-two run at the till.

For me, the only acceptable deal is the one that’s there on the thing you already want to buy. You want the pair of boots in Office, and with delight, discover that they’re on offer. You don’t buy them BECAUSE they’re on offer, this is your choice, not the discounter’s choice. You fancy a pizza? Brilliant because you can’t go to Pizza Express without a two-for-one voucher. It’s a thing. I’ve tried it without one and you can hear the sharp intake of breath resounding around greater London. No voucher??!! Be gone, vile spirit.

Friends have tried to get me to go to a restaurant on a Monday night (who goes out on Monday??!!) because that’s the night it has a Top Table deal. Of course it has – no one else wants to dine that night. No – I’d rather go on Thursday, thanks, and pay full price, than sit there with the smugsville ‘look how much discount we got’ crew. Ugh.

What is really irritating about all of this is that people truly believe they have got a good deal on something. It doesn’t matter that they’ve just spent £25 to get to that hotel in Northampton to do the sushi-making, they got a DEAL. The best thing that Groupon could offer is a lesson in how commerce works, with maybe a lesson in marketing on the side.

Upgrades. For me, these are in the same camp as deals. People are obsessed with getting them and when they do, they bring the Big Smug Guns out. Even if it’s just a seat in front of the curtains on EasyJet, there’s always someone gunning for an upgrade. I’ve been on holidays where I’ve been surrounded by braying couples bragging about how they’d managed to ‘hoodwink’ the staff into giving them a balcony sea view room all for the price of a broom cupboard. As someone who spends as little time as possible in their hotel room on holiday, I just don’t get it. I did rejoice when I got an upgrade to a sea-front room in a Thai hotel once, and in Cliveden hotel, but the point was they were just given to me. I’d booked rooms already and I didn’t have to ‘hoodwink’ anyone. That was the joy.

I once went on a four-day break with someone to Ibiza, who spent the whole time trying to get things ‘for free’. We couldn’t do anything without her trying to get in some VIP area for free, drinks for free, free, free, FREE. In the end, I just wanted to pay for everything just so we could move on. What is this obsession with free stuff? I love saying no to the guy trying to shove some breakfast bar in my face at Paddington station. But it’s FREE, he says, in disbelief. Little does he know that makes me want to stuff the breakfast bar in his mouth.

People are aghast about paywalls too. I’ll read the free Metro and Evening Standard but I want to pay for my Times newspaper. It has, in my mind, quality journalism in it. I don’t care who ultimately owns it – if we all chose products based on whether or not the CEO was a nice guy we’d be left buying nothing. I will pay for stuff I want to read, even if it is online.

Now I know that people will be thinking, it’s ok for her, she’s not existing on a shoestring budget. Well no, I’m not now. But I used to be, and think that might be the source of my problem with deals and free things. My teenage years were filled with scratching around for money – a fiver to get some petrol in the car, a bus fare, some coins for the laundrette. I never managed to live within my means then and I don’t now. I’m pathologically averse to denying myself things and I wonder if I feel a sense of entitlement to full-priced things. I go into a clothes shop where there is a huge sale on and march straight to the back of the shop where the new stuff is. For one thing, there is never anything but tat in the sale section. Fact.

For me, one of the most unattractive qualities in a person is stinginess, and especially in a man. I used to date someone I called ‘Shrapnel Man’ because he turned up to the pub with a few coins in his pocket, expecting me to buy the drinks (it turned out later that he didn’t want to break into the notes in his wallet). One guy didn’t want to use his card at a bar in case it got hacked. I got the drinks in, using my card. No hacking.

A couple of people I know have perfected the art of letting me walk into the pub first so that I order. I love watching to see what they do if I have to hang back for any reason. I’ve invented fake phone calls so that I have to stay outside for a minute. Will they wait or go to the bar? Most of the time I just stride forward, happy in my ability to just go to the fucking bar and buy the fucking round (sorry).

I’ll happily go into debt just to have the satisfaction of that moment.

A Comment on Women and Food

Last year, I gave up any form of weird food restriction after a Dieting Decade which saw me trying every single fad going to keep my weight under control. Atkins, Dukan, 5:2, GI – I’d done the lot. And I was heartily sick of it.

I had my ‘epiphany’ on a Turkish beach, when I suddenly realised that it was all utter bollocks – I didn’t have to adhere to some magazine advertising executive’s view of female body shape and I could simply be me, as I am, eating normal foods and being my normal shape. The world didn’t end and I didn’t suddenly die socially – if anything, I became happier, more confident, sexier and sharper-minded. I simply realised that restricting food restricts a woman’s ability to perform well in the world and I describe my Road to Damascus moment here:

Since then, I’ve really noticed how other women seem amazed that I order normal food in restaurants, and don’t sit there picking at a protein-based salad (as I used to do). When I offer up the excuse that I walked to work that morning (it takes an hour and twenty minutes) they seem happy that I’ve ‘earned’ the right to have a proper meal (ie with carbohydrates). What I’m eating is always commented upon, and I notice more and more that the other women feel the need to ‘be good’ at the dinner table. And to tell everyone about it.

I went for a dinner last year with a group of friends and sat next to a Serial Restricter. She talked about the calorific value of her food throughout, then told me all the various ways she was going to ‘work it off’ the next day. When women go out for meals together the topic often turns to weight control, and the more they eat and drink at that meal, the more they tell everyone about all the ways they’ll keep the weight off afterwards. I used to do it too. Yawnsville. You can guarantee the guys aren’t talking about this shit.

Recently, a friend I hadn’t seen for a while turned up for lunch and another female friend immediately ‘complimented’ her on how ‘skinny’ she looked. A little piece of me died inside, knowing that this is the first thing we value, or monitor, about each other. Now, I make a point of never commenting on appearance, until I’ve at least asked about how a friend’s life is. And that applies to women and men. If I tell them they look ‘well’, it’s because they truly do look healthy – I’m never going to use it as a codeword for ‘slimmer’, which is what most women do.

I’ll never forget seeing a work colleague take a brownie from someone who’d baked for the office and watching her scrape her teeth down it before discreetly throwing it in the bin. That moment has stuck in my mind as a truly tragic one. This woman was, and is, an amazing person. She is better than brownie-scraping.

But women in groups police each other’s weight. Codewords are used to comment on shape and you get used to your body being surreptitiously scanned by other women when you walk into a room. I’ve worked in female-heavy offices where eating disorders break out because one woman goes on a crash diet. When I taught ballet, a promising young girl of twelve became anorexic because another girl told her she had a ‘funny’ body.

I think that women owe it to themselves to be strong and healthy-bodied, able to stand, walk and run in the world without fear of a small gust of wind knocking them over. I think we owe it our brains to keep them well-fed, so that we are able to speak confidently, debate loudly and deliver a killer pitch at work. Not to mention show younger women a good example. You can’t do any of this well if you’re surviving on 500 calories a day.

Ladies, let rip. We don’t need to do this. No one is asking us to be control-freak skinny and unhappy except us. And we are agreeing to it because we think that’s what the world wants from us. Ask yourself who is going to love you more for being ‘skinny’ – possibly the magazine advertising executive because he/she is selling you products based on your biggest fear. It won’t be anyone else, not even you. Because you’ll never be skinny enough.

Don’t be scared. Have the brownie, then walk out of the door and take up your space in the world.

You’ve earned it.


On policing women’s appetites: