Hey everyone! I’m rich, rich beyond my wildest dreams!*

*Actually, when I say “rich”, I don’t mean Conservative Party donor rich. I mean I have £1,000 to spend on clothes at very.co.uk.**

** Actually, when I say “have”, I don’t mean I literally have £1,000. I have £1,000 worth of credit, for which I applied.***

*** Actually, when I say “applied”, I don’t mean I applied for it. I just got given it, subject to credit checks.****

**** Actually, when I say “subject to credit checks”, I don’t mean…

I think you get the idea. Today I bought a dress from Very and uncovered a whole world of exploitative credit hell which I didn’t realise existed.

Look, I’ve always known that catalogues exploit the poor, offering things you could never afford at £1.50 a week so that you end up paying several times the amount you would if you could purchase a product with a one-off payment. And I knew this type of thing was proliferating in the Age of Austerity, with shops such as Bright House – “your weekly payment store” – springing up all over the country. What I didn’t realise was that you can have huge amounts of credit thrown in your face without even asking for it, and without anyone being remotely interested in when and how you can pay them back (but one presumes that somehow, you will).

I don’t normally shop online at places like Very. I only did it because yesterday I tried on a dress in the Oasis sale and wanted to buy it, but needed a smaller size, which the shop didn’t have. The online Oasis store didn’t have it either, but Very (which seems to stock various labels) did. The price at Very was more expensive than in the Oasis sale, but by that point I’d got in into my head that this dress was rare as gold dust and I had to buy it, now. This is me being an idiot; I know that. I shouldn’t have been attempting to buy the dress at all; I shouldn’t have even tried it on. But anyhow, I did and I take responsibility for that.

What I don’t take responsibility for is being given an additional £1,000 to spend at Very. I didn’t ask for it and I don’t want it. If I had an extra £1,000 that most certainly isn’t where it’d go. Moreover, I am still getting my head around being given it without anyone even checking whether I have any money at all. At least payday loans companies work on the basis that you have a job. No one at Very asked me anything about my circumstances. The consequences of taking the money and not being able to pay it back were not made clear.

I thought “well, I’ll just ignore that, buy the dress and never visit this frighteningly exploitative website again”. So I went through the usual processes for buying online, even selecting a pick-up point so the postman wouldn’t have to leave one of those “undelivered” cards while I was at work. The nearest Very pick-up point to my house turns out to be Bargain Booze, part of a chain you find on so many poverty-stricken estates. It’s the chain which used to use “making life richer for the pourer” as a slogan. I find that fitting.

Then I bought the dress. Only I didn’t. I reached the confirmation page, the delivery number and date were set, but at no point had I paid for anything. I’d bought the dress on credit and hadn’t even been given the chance not to. I knew that if I left it, I would end up in the situation of “having a tab” with Very. However sensible I might try to be in future, next time I actually needed something – as opposed to just wanting a stupid dress – I might think “oh, I could get that at Very. It’s a bit more pricey, but that will help balance the monthly finances”. So the amount I owed would build and build.

Hence I hunted down the My Account page and selected Make a Payment. The three options I got were these:

  • Make a Take 3 payment (payment spread over three months)
  • Make a Minimum Payment (something that kicks in once you get your “statement” – and presumably it can last forever)
  • Make Other Payment, in which you specify the amount (they don’t just tell you how much you owe)

Just paying off everything isn’t even given as a choice. You have to select “other” and input the figure for yourself.

Anyhow, I paid all the money I owed and on Monday I get to collect a pretty dress that will presumably be stored behind the counter alongside fags and Tia Maria. And I don’t want to grumble – I like the dress, even if I am a fool for buying it. Nor do I wish to sound naive or, god forbid, financially savvy. I have credit card debt; indeed, the more debt I amass, the more my limit is upped without me even requesting it. That is bad, and I am stupid, but at least I applied for the card. At least I know what choices I am making, and that someone, somewhere, is doing something to check whether I can repay the money (the debt should be paid off by the end of next month, but this rise and fall has happened several times, with the banks benefiting from my own stupidity / lack of organisation / bad luck more and more).

Nor do I wish to sound like I’m wringing my hands about people preying on the poor, as though “the poor” are stupid and weak. They’re not; they’re just poor. But what appalls me is that Very clearly have an understanding of the psychology of poverty and want, and an awareness that people will try their hardest to avoid debt, so they are dragging people in by giving them things they have not asked for. I don’t understand enough about how these things work to know why this is legal, but it’s rubbish. What makes it extra-specially rubbish is knowing that the poor person who “buys” a £30 dress and is set on a spiral of debt will be portrayed as stupid, and the rich person who spends thousands on a Hermès bag will not (“because it’s their money”, you might say. But I find it hard to believe that one person or one object is truly “worth” so much more than another).

I don’t think for a minute that Very is the only online store doing this. Perhaps they feel they have to do it because everyone else is. Perhaps other online stores offer you a lot more. Maybe all of them see it as a way of allowing people to have things they couldn’t otherwise afford. After all, is it their fault that the wage gap between rich and poor is so huge? I’d think not, but I wouldn’t say their hands are totally clean. If there is no basic morality underpinning how people exchange money and products – if it’s all about how a minority get rich, even if it’s on the debts of others – then why not just carry on paying people next to nothing? I can’t see where it will all end, but it seems to follow a logical progression of driving anyone who is poor further into the ground.

The woman who lived in the house I now occupy had to sell up due to massive debts. She bought a lot from catalogues; I know this because they still get delivered in her name. When we moved in, we’d sometimes get calls or even visits from people asking for money. Since she had the same surname as my partner, they’d often ask for Mrs Hissurname. I often get called Mrs Hissurname by cold callers anyhow, so it was like a vision of what my future could be if I’m not careful. I try to be careful, but it’s hard to be careful enough.

Holly Willoughby has a collection for Very. I don’t imagine she collects her clothes at Bargain Booze. I don’t see why anyone should. Mind you, I’ll be picking up some Tia Maria while I’m there.