The secret life of a fantasy shopper
Some people take window-shopping to the next level - you could call it fantasy shopping - because as the pound plummets, the middle is squeezed and politics goes into meltdown, it's fun to pretend to have money. Sue Elliott-Nicholls is an arch exponent of the fantasist's art.
I love a posh shop. I love the smell, the lighting, the shimmery floors, the beautiful assistants that join in while I giddily slip a Cartier eternity ring on my finger, waft some £300 perfume around, snuggle up in the £4,000 armchair and ruminate over the benefits of the £550 Chloe sunglasses.
Obviously I have no intention of ever buying any of those things, I just like to pretend. In these grey times of austerity - or is post-austerity? - we all need a little golden sparkle in our day, don't we?
I'm not alone - there are many of us out there.
Tehya, 21, fills up her virtual shopping cart with thousands of pounds' worth of designer bags that Carrie Bradshaw would be proud to tuck under her arm. They're in her cart, on her own computer, in her own home. IT'S LIKE SHE OWNS THEM.
"I could look at bags for hours," says Tehya. "I do it online. I put loads of stuff in my basket, keep it there for a few days and then I empty my basket and start again a few days later."
Kirby, 33, fills up her basket with houses.
"I go on estate agents' websites and think 'Oh! Where am I going to move to?' And then I put them in reverse price order," Kirby says, with a mischievous smile. Not bad for someone who's renting a room in her friend's flat.
"I have a friend who actually buys expensive clothes online and then returns them," says Kirby. "The money gets put back on her PayPal, so she has loads of money on her PayPal that she doesn't think about. Then when she needs to buy something she has loads of money on her PayPal account. She sees it as savings."
Find out more
Listen to Sue Elliott-Nicholls and her friends discussing fantasy shopping on Woman's Hour on Thursday 13 December at 10:00
It was reported this summer that nearly one in 10 British adults buys outfits online, takes a cheeky photo wearing them in their own homes, or a chosen location (even on the beach) and then sends them back. The pictures are posted on social media, often with the Outfit Of The Day (#OOTD) hashtag.
I know this is supposed to be a problem, but come on - it's genius. The clothing industry has always chewed us fashion victims up and then spat us out again. Now the worm gets a little turn. This way you get to almost own the outfit.
Personally, I prefer a real shop to a virtual one. I love the interactive experience. It's like visiting a stately home, but you can actually lie on Queen Elizabeth's bed and light the fire in the grate.
"Exactly," agrees Kirby. "It's an interactive art installation, where you can try on all the pieces."
All the thought, love and work that has gone into designing that £300 cushion, the materials responsibly sourced from a Tibetan mountainside, the hand-stitching done by a craftswoman in the Scottish Highlands wearing fingerless gloves - what good is it if no-one sees it?
And I love the assistants. They are beautiful, and they make you feel beautiful too.
"They're model-like," says my friend Di, another fantasy shopper. "And they're very complimentary."
Well-groomed and carefully picked for their ability to play the game, I love the whole cast: the beautiful young girl exuding cool chic, the motherly older woman who knows best, the slightly camp best friend.
"Ooooh," I cooed in Selfridges as I eyed up my Givenchy frock in the (extremely flattering) mirror. "These would look good with some Gucci trainers wouldn't they?" Next thing I knew someone had gone skipping off to get me a pair. Nothing is too much trouble.
I tell my mate Tracy about the rapport I felt with the beautiful young assistant helping me decide on a silk shirt last week - I know he really liked me. But Tracey won't have it and pulls me back down to Earth.
"He's schmoozing you because he might have a sale, because in the back of his head he's thinking, 'I might as well give her the schmooze, she just might have £900.'"
I can't believe that can be true. I ask Tehya, who used to work in a high-end luxury shop (selling bags of course). Do they not like me at all? Do they just view me as a potential cash cow? Do they judge me? Surely not.
"No, I think you actually enjoy having someone to talk to for a bit," Tehya reassures me. "Because it's better than just standing around, which is a lot of what retail work is. And you can't actually tell who is faking and who is going to buy stuff - you think you can make a quick assumption as they walk in the door, but sometimes people will just randomly spend thousands of pounds."
We fantasy shoppers hold a great assistant in very high regard, let me tell you.
"There's nothing nicer than going into the changing room and having the attention of the sales assistant," agrees Wendy, who works in fashion. "Advising you, getting extra sizes, sometimes even getting you a glass of champagne!"
"She got champagne?" Kirby is incensed. "I only ever got that in wedding dress shops."
I cast Kirby a respectful glance. I have thought about wedding dress shopping, but Kirby has actually done it.
"Me and my friend would take it in turns to be the bridesmaid and the bride," she says. "It can be a bit awkward, because they ask you loads of questions, like the name of your fiancé and stuff - so when they call you a few weeks later, you just don't answer."
A certain amount of Stanislavsky technique is often helpful when fantasy shopping. You need a persona and a back story - and really believe it.
Kirby's alter ego is the daughter of an African diplomat: he's in meetings and has let her loose on the West End with his card. My friend Di plays the wife of a record producer: friends with Victoria Beckham, three successful grown-up children, with a house in Bloomsbury, London, and another one in Paris. Me? I'm just me but with endless amounts of fictional cash to spend - oh yes and a Huguenot pile in Spitalfields for when I'm perusing the soft furnishings.
Personally I am happy to leave these shops empty-handed - it's all good, clean free fun.
Wendy, though, she doesn't feel so great. "It's like leaving a spa after having a treatment, you're all relaxed and then you have to get yourself home, and it almost undoes the good that it's done."
I ask Kirby how she feels when she's spewed back into the real world, on to the cold grey pavements.
"Oh that's easy," she says. "I go into Selfridge's late afternoon, try on all the fancy things, then go down on to the food court and buy half-price cupcakes in a fancy yellow bag, so I leave with a cupcake and a bag."
I would like to raise a hurrah for us fantasy shoppers. Far from being delusional fakers, I think we actually do some good. Exercising our creative muscles with improvised role-play, appreciating the lovely things someone has created, and alleviating the boredom of the heavenly shop assistants who, as Wendy points out, "like us, want to believe".
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