If the definition of a true communist is someone who would willingly live for a month in 1970s Poland, the definition of a true capitalist should be anyone who could spend a month in Las Vegas while reading nothing but Hammacher Schlemmer mail order catalogues.
Even hardened materialists can find American consumerism a little much. A bizarre-looking $300 item I once saw turned out to be an oriel window for your cat. (The idea is that you fix this to your window frame so it protrudes through the sash window of your 32nd floor apartment, allowing your pet a 180° view of the outside world.)
But there is a good side to this. The sheer size of the American market makes it profitable to serve fantastically obscure needs — so, however bizarre your problem, you can solve it with a few minutes online trawling American retailers.
Last month at Heathrow I decided to search for braces which did not set off the X-ray machine at airport security. To my surprise I couldn’t find them anywhere. Then I remembered that Americans don’t call them braces but suspenders. Sure enough, a few Googles later I had found www.suspenderstore.com (a much less erotic site than it sounds to British ears) and had ordered my ‘BuzzNot Airport-Friendly Travel Suspenders’ for $19.95.
But if the range of gizmos is spectacular, the breadth of US online services is even more astounding. In my search for braces I came across an article on air-travel which mentioned several ‘virtual closet’ companies including www.justcarryon.com and www.garderobeonline.com. Joan Collins has already written in this magazine about www.firstluggage.com; the virtual closet takes this principle one step further. You simply send the company a bundle of your clothes and toiletries (a mixture of summer and winter clothing, ideally) and they photograph them before putting them into storage. The photographs are then used to create your online cyber-wardrobe. Suppose you want to spend next week in Las Vegas — well, instead of packing a suitcase, lugging it to the airport and checking it in, you simply log on, click on whatever you want from your virtual closet and it’s all shipped straight to your Vegas hotel, leaving you to travel bag-free. When you leave, just reseal the box and they arrange collection, dry-cleaning anything you have worn ready for your next trip. They’ll also replace your razors, shaving foam and so forth: hence no more of that airport nonsense with daft little polythene bags.
Though we have nothing like this, we in Britain can be relatively proud of our own record in e-commerce. Credit crunch notwithstanding, Verdict research predicts online shopping here will grow by 13 per cent this year, against a total retail decline of 0.6 per cent. By some measures British online spending per head exceeds that of the US, mainly due to our rapid adoption of online grocery shopping, a field in which we lead the world.
In fact there are several other technological areas where Britain enjoys similar supremacy, but you wouldn’t know it from the newspapers. When some tedious old British thespian is tipped for an Oscar in an otherwise American film, you read about it for weeks. Yet the game Grand Theft Auto, a more successful entertainment property than any Hollywood film, is almost entirely a Scottish creation. A little more celebration of this wouldn’t hurt.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.