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Expat Shopping Frenzy

It’s getting to that time of year again. An annual trip home to UK is imminent and with it will be the frenetic days of shopping that sees me mutate into some kind of a crazed, credit card wielding bargain hunter in a high street version of supermarket sweep, while family and friends look on in shock and bemusement.

Shopping Frenzy
 Annual shopping Frenzy
While in England I’ll commonly lie-awake at night thinking up ways of wangling shopping trips into days that are supposed to be dedicated to more family-friendly activities. To give an example, while headed off on holiday to a caravan in Wales, I insisted on a short stop-off at Cribbs Causeway shopping centre (and it's a massive place) – not to go food shopping – but to do John Lewis school uniform and shoes (4 pairs per child, trainers and black shoes, one pair a size up to grow into), replacement work suits for my husband and a quick nip across the forecourt to look at the Gap sale-rail, opposite the coffee shop where I’d parked the rest of the family with overpriced coffee and sugar rush inducing cupcakes. End result – less beach/holiday time – more shopping anxiety.

Through the summer trip back home, my mind will constantly be racing over what to source then buy for the birthdays of godchildren, grandparents, nieces and nephews who are owed presents that are months overdue, and of course presents for my own children for whom birthdays and Christmas are obviously looming over the coming 11 months. I’ll even be thinking about stocking fillers and gifts things to bring back for people back in Nairobi. Hell, if they sold Easter Eggs in August, I’d be buying them. Ridiculous, I know.

In reality – although I’m the first to admit that I love, love, love shopping and being self-indulgent – over the other11 months of the year, although I'm never one to pass-up a shopping opportunity, circumstances dictate that I’ll buy comparatively little. (Bah humbug – I hear you say).

Shopping in Nairobi
I have to admit that there are a couple of clothes and shoes stores in Nairobi that I can’t resist when I feel the need for spoiling. I'm a materialist - I love buying clothes and things for the house, it invariably cheers me up no end – but at Nairobi prices?  Local purchases (other then food) are once in a blue moon. In reality months often go by without a single purchase. Why? Because goods in Nairobi are much more expensive than back home, thanks to the horribly steep import tax.

While it is definitely possible to buy almost anything here, an emergency pair of trainer’s for your son or daughter, pyjamas, even a computer or phone – the new things you buy locally will be at a premium. There’s less choice of goods on offer and you’ll find yourself paying much more than you are used to, for lower quality stuff.

Over the rest of the year, I’ll be found sewing up holes (waging all-out war on moths) and gluing together children’s trainers – all the while, only too starkly aware of the humbling fact that our possessions are myriad in comparison to what everyone around us gets by on.

“But Mum – I need new trainers, mine are falling apart and my toes are curling!” My daughter says.
“Yes, yes” – I reply brusquely, “But they’ll have to last for the next 4 weeks won’t they?” I found myself saying at half term.

When the 5 of us arrive back in England, our washed-out, ill-fitting old clothes usually come painfully into sharp focus (particularly the children’s, I’m ashamed to say). Friends and family take pity on us offering gratefully received hand-me-down clothes to save us from the indignity and total shame.  It's sure to say that living in Kenya you might be paid less, but you can save more.

Internet shopping for expats
While internet shopping is just one click away for friends in England – I’ve decided now that for me it’s unworkable. After years of shopping disasters I’ve realised that what looks good on the online model does not necessarily translate, the quality is never the same, clothes rarely fit – and sending goods back ‘within 2 weeks’ is an impossibility – I’ve almost given up on internet shopping.  Almost.... I recently ordered our middle daughter some Gap jeans in the sale. Sadly she couldn’t get into them so I ended up giving them to a friend’s (skinnier) daughter as part of a birthday present. That went down well, but it’s galling that a lot of ‘mistake’ purchases that I’ve made in haste have had to be given away.

The sad thing about rushed-shopping back home, (often trying to fit a year’s worth of purchasing into 3-4 weeks) is that they joy goes out of it. After a week or so’s endless sale rail scanning, handing over your bank card yet again starts to make you feel physically sick.  I'm sure that if I didn't set myself up for this round of frantic shopping, we'd still get by just fine.  I should definitely buy less.  Having said that, thanks to the building project, this year I’m planning to look for door knobs, wall paper rolls and light fittings. Oh help us!

Anyway, in these days of recession and austerity – I realise that we are extremely lucky to be semi-protected from a developed world media campaign seducing us to shop constantly. If I was still living in England, I know that I would be the first person to feel a pressing need for new Springtime shoes, a pretty top for the weekend or a set of new bed linen – at the sight of the first offer.

Sadly, along with an economic boom, the outside pressure is coming at juggernaut speed.  More low-income earners are now smoking cigarettes, shiny shopping centres are everywhere and the comparatively expensive KFC take-away is now the ultimate status symbol in town.

Read more here: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-05-08/kfc-bet-on-africa-middle-class-draws-global-retailers.html

Buy less, Donate – Don’t Bin
I was humbled the other day, when I heard an austerity-hit retired Greek lady who hasn’t received a pension for 6 months, explain on BBC world radio that she had not bought any new clothes or shoes for over a year. I’m not sure I’d be able to hold out that long.

Shortly after hearing that report, I read the below article in the Telegraph – 1.5 million tons of clothes and textiles go into UK landfill sites every year and the number is rising. Shoppers are throwing clothes away with their weekly rubbish, from designer labels to Primark – and many of them have barely worn. The message of the article is Buy Less, Don’t Bin – Donate.

Buy Less - Bin less.  Sobering image
Read more: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthnews/9301326/Clothes-join-rubbish-of-our-throwaway-society.html

We are lucky to be able to donate here in Kenya with very little effort involved.  Second-hand clothes are comparatively expensive here.  Even though many of them are donated/charity items sent from the West, traders still have to pay clearing and import duty once they arrive at Mombasa port, which pushes retail prices ever higher.  Second-hand Primark, Tescos or Asda clothes will cost more second-hand here in Kenya, than they do new.  Such is the thirst for 'free' second-hand clothes, that once they are sorted at home; they’re swept up and distributed for re-use, almost before you can bag them up.

My ‘just turned 12’ year old and now ‘brand-aware’ daughter, is into the clothes label ‘Hollister’. She was pleased as punch to get her first ever Hollister t-shirts from UK relatives for her birthday. The irony is that one of the builders (fundis) currently working on our house extension wears a trendy red Hollister t-shirt every day! He obviously bought it from one of the second hand markets here.

A friend’s teenage sons who attend school in England have recognised the craziness and are capitalising from it.  They source designer second-hand clothes in Kenya’s markets then re-sell them back to UK friends in school as ‘vintage’.  Seriously, those boys will go far. What goes around comes around.

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