It's Christmas time and Britain is suffering a credit crunch on a never-before-seen scale. So the obvious conclusion is a low-key Yuletide celebration. But apparently not, at least in Britain. The toymakers for one are still hoping to persuade X'Mas shoppers out of their financial shells and into the many eye-wateringly expensive luxury hampers in shops.
Fortnum and Mason, the 300-year-old emporium on London's Piccadilly whose opulence eclipses even arch rival Harrods, boasts the most expensive hamper on the market - the Snow Queen, a snip at 25,000 pounds (30,000 euros, 38,000 dollars).
AdvertisementWith a price tag higher than the average annual wage in Britain, the hamper is stuffed with rare treats including magnums of Veuve Clicquot champagne and Chateau Margaux wine, one kilogram (92.2 pounds) of foie gras and two of caviar.
Shoppers at the store - where staff in black and white uniforms glide around beneath traditional Christmas trees - seemed undeterred by the steep pricing as they browsed for gifts like rose petal jelly and 30-year-old whisky.
"The credit crunch? Well, it's still Christmas after all!" said one tweed-coated man in his 60s, visibly surprised at the thought of cutting back this festive season. He left with a 500 pound hamper.
Kimberley Power, a Fortnum and Mason spokeswoman, said shoppers were still snapping up hampers despite the crunch. "The Snow Queen hamper is of interest to a select clientele," she added, while declining to give sales figures.
Fortnum and Mason claims to have invented hampers and says theirs "helped the army march on its stomach to final victory over Napoleon" as Britain and other nations defeated France at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
Hampers - a wicker basket filled with Christmas treats like wine, biscuits, chocolate and chutney - are a Christmas institution in Britain, though most families usually pay more like 50 pounds than 25,000 pounds for theirs.
This year, though, the conditions on the high street are looking bleak as the credit crunch starts to bite, with Bank of England governor Mervyn King warning in October it was "likely" Britain was entering recession.
Retail sales were down 0.1 percent in October, while Woolworths - the budget all-purpose retailer which is a fixture on every British high street - said last week it was calling in administrators.
But London's high end department stores seem hopeful that shoppers will not stint themselves this Christmas, despite the economic doom and gloom.
Harvey Nichols, whose most expensive hamper costs 2,500 pounds, is using the slogan: "The recession has never looked so good" to advertise its wares.
And Selfridges is offering a new range of hampers by accessories designer Anya Hindmarch, whose five-pound "I Am Not A Plastic Bag" shopping bags caused a frenzy among fashionistas last year.
The Hindmarch hampers contain treats including nail varnish, marshmallows, hot chocolate and an iPod nano music player.
Paul Buckley, a marketing and consumer psychologist at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff, said that retailers may be trying to cash in on the fact that, during a downturn, "people still want a treat".
But he added: "A lot of these shops offer these hampers probably not so much to sell, I think. Selfridges offered a really expensive one but no-one bought one last year.
"So really, it's just almost a showcase for their products, to display their best goods."