Who has heard of Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Normal Henkel Emmanuel Ambroise Diggs? Come on now, this is common knowledge. You know, but you don’t know that you know. And if you really don’t know, then you should be permitted a second childhood because no-one should not know who O.Z.P.I.N.H.E.A.D is- or as as he preferred to be known, Oz. He is a creation of L.Frank Baum, and appears as a wizard, holding benign dominion over the Land of Oz. Dorothy and her variously debilitated retinue embark on a quest to find this wizard, believing he is equipped to solve their problems. They skip along, this trio of maladroits, in sanguine expectation and blissful revery. On the yellow-brick road, they skip along. (What I never understood is why it had to be a yellow-brick road and not a golden road. Because, in every stage or screen performance, the yellow is such a lurid hue that it feels as though your vision is being drowned in a vat of sick). Why am I telling you about OZPINHEAD? Well, recently, I have found employment at a large electronics retailer, and working here has- amongst other things- reminded me of the character, Oz.
Speaking as a consumer, you have certain expectations when you set foot inside a big electronics store. If, for example, you go to a PC world, the person who greets you looks tidy and presentable, with his lilac shirt and wise mien- his costume gives him dominion in the laptop or TV section. He is a trusted and venerable individual, imbued with insight and knowledge that escapes ordinary human understanding. He is your guide in the tech-jungle, your saviour in the electronic hinterland. You let him take you by the hand and lead you to salvation. There is so much choice-yet, apparently so very little difference- and only he has the sacred knowledge that can unlock the right laptop package for you.
If you go to a Curry’s, over by the washing machines and cookers a spritely being greets you with an unusually expansive smile, skips about you, and flutters and falls about you in fits of giggles. She is enchanted, she knows some esoteric (product) knowledge and she leads you along in the magical world of Curry’s, where you cannot be allowed to roam alone. Now, a lot of the time, we might be inclined to give a two-finger salute to the wise laptop man and swat the washing-machine fairy aside, but this is more to do with wanting to explore the place for ourselves than having a belief that they can’t help us. I always believed they can help us.
But now I am on the other side. The first thing I can now relay from the other side is how inexplicably polite some people are. In other contexts, on a day-to-day basis, you meet people who don’t care how you are, nor do you particularly care how they are. So you ask ‘you oryt?’ and you’re met with a totally ludicrous reply that comes careering in the slip-stream of your question, with an answer that is a question: ‘you oryt?’ Obviously it is a burden to explain how miserable your affairs are in reality, so it’s much easier to say something illogical, but conventionally accepted. But in an electronics-store environment people genuinely seem to care, and to think that you care. You might say that this is because they think you might be of assistance to them; but much of the time, they just want to be left alone, but are very polite anyway.
(An aside: I’m actually panicking because I have to work today, and I realise that i’ve had to construct an elaborate fiction in my head about being a salesperson. But now I realise that by writing this, I’m unravelling it all. I’m going to be back to square one: actively avoiding customers for fear of having to convince them of things I don’t believe in. (Luckily, my point-score was high yesterday, so I should be able to have an off-day)).
The second thing I’ve realized is that people do truly believe that there is some asymmetry of knowledge, whereas in most cases there isn’t. This is where your skill as a salesperson comes in. In most cases, I have to make an entirely specious case for why one type of technology is superior to another, whereas in fact they are in all important respects identical. Someone will ask why one kind of equipment that has the same specification as another costs £20 more, and I can’t say the truth: ‘Sorry, I don’t know’. Instead, I have to fabricate reasons that neither of us will ever know to be false. People think that we know more about the product than they do, but in reality they would know just as much if they read the label.
The third thing worth mentioning is that labels are useless. When there are twenty laptops in front of you, price is usually a good indicator of quality- or so you would think. But prices change seemingly arbitrarily. They go down and up, and this is something that made me re-evaluate my understanding of discounts. Previously, I thought that discounts meant that the retailer takes a small hit by selling a product at a reduced price, because its corporate self felt it should be beneficent for a time. But it seems that it’s all a game, because a price-drop for one product is complemented by a price-rise for another. Prices rise and drop as conditions change, to suit the retailer. When I think I’m getting a discount now, I think not that I am gaining anything, but that I am losing less.
The final thing I should mention is the unreality underlying the whole setup. Retailers are adept at constructing a convincing fiction, and set a stage upon which the consumer is invited to be an active participant. The advertising, the employee’s costumes, the posters and leaflets, all these sundry details create a believable unreality. And the stores themselves are the coup-de- grace: with flashing, shiny, dazzling things rendering you insensate. So, it is at this juncture that I should refer again to the Wizard of OZ.
Like others before her, Dorothy believes that Oz will solve her troubles. When finally she meets him, he appears in various startling guises, and then finally as a voice. In the end, it becomes clear that Oz is only an ordinary man who has been using various magic tricks to make himself appear tremendously powerful. His dominion is built upon illusion, and his subjects have always been held in thrall by a clever hoax. In essence, that is what consumer goods retailers amount to: they are very clever at doing tricks, appealing to our primitive lust to be dazzled.