The only way to prove a small point to myself, it seemed, was to spend several weeks staring at a bottle of beer. It was not unbroken staring, you understand; indeed, there may only have been a few sly stares per week, but it was always the same beer. I had a suspicion that it was doing something other than sitting there quietly getting people hammered, involved, perhaps, in some low grade commercial drama, the shifty lager bastard. The beer I was staring at was in my cosy local supermarket, and cost 1.56 for a 66cl bottle, a fact announced by the smallest available price ticket. It enjoyed an unruffled life in the middle of the shelves, and for weeks it stood patiently with the other extras, waiting for Act One to come to a close and looking forward to big changes during the interval.
Sure enough, the evening came when Act Two began, and a merchandising shindy finally visited the continental lager stage. The old trouper that had held my attention had now joined a spotlit chorus of beers at the top of the shelves. Its script, for so long demanding only the odd mumble of “onepoundfiftysix,” was now trumpeted in the largest typeface possible: “Three For Five Pounds, or 1.99 each!” Typical. Yesterday an honourable mainstay of the supporting cast, today a cynical ham in a commercial pantomime. Or somesuch. I asked one of the front-of-house staff, a good-hearted youth with a haircut that made him look a bit daft, what made this such a bargain, when yesterday it had cost 4.68 for three. He clearly didn’t have a clue, bless him, but at least he was game enough to burble on a little about increased supplier prices. It sounded like he’d heard some lukewarm gossip from a meeting to which he hadn’t been invited.
A lot of people going to the store in question would think that they were being offered a good deal. Indeed, for a fiver they’d be getting the equivalent of six 33cl bottles of something innocuously drinkable, the beer equivalent of switching on Radio Two while you do your chores. But the fact remains that the price had increased significantly before the “bargain” could be presented. As the customer doesn’t have time to spend staring at beer for weeks on end, he can find himself distracted by such bargains, real or perceived, rather than focussing on the compendious delights offered by the beer range as a whole, and the life-affirming joys of choice and growing knowledge. An hour of ELO or twenty minutes of the Clash and Charlie Parker followed by forty minutes of fulfilled silence? Don’t be duped into the former, it’s never a real bargain – ELO are fine for a while, but five quid’s worth, whatever the “real” price, is going to become background noise soon enough.
Although to be fair, I seldom get invited round to anybody’s house for a drink nowadays. Well, where do you think I find all that time to stare at beer..?