The Little Shop promotion — where Coles handed out little plastic versions of products from the shelf when you spent $30 on products from the shelf — has officially ended, but the fallout is far from over.
Currently parents and kids are scrambling to complete their sets of 30 Little Shop products using online ‘buy/swap/sell’ groups, or paying $5 a pop for a little plastic bunch of bananas on Gumtree. If you didn’t pay the $4 for the folder to store your Little Shop products they’re now fetching over $100 online, or you can pay $180 for a complete set.
By Coles’ own metric — the creation of consumers and increased sales — the promotion was a raging success. Coles’ rival, Woolworths, blames these plastic toys for a downturn in their own profits during the quarter, and the companies that paid to have their products feature in the promotion report significant boosts in sales due to increased recognition. White King Toilet Cleaner recorded a 50% boost in sales on last year’s results.
My kids love their new Little Shop toys. They eagerly anticipated a new little ‘mystery packet’ to unwrap after every grocery run; Christmas came every shopping trip. The toys are now scattered around our house because they’re popular playtime fodder with their own little space in the play kitchen (we didn’t buy a folder, and if we had, I’d have sold it by now…). They’re able to spot a White King Toilet Cleaner at fifty paces; their indoctrination as little Coles shoppers is well underway. It’s fascinating how easily a series of little plastic toys for kids can change the consumption patterns of adults; and how quickly they’ve sunk in to the practices, language and imagination of our kids. It’s so easy to churn out little consumers; and so hard to resist that way of understanding what it is to be human.
The Little Shops FAQ page on Coles’ website answers a delightful little question that speaks of the disappointment of many little boys opening up their Little Shop Nutella jar: Why don’t the mini collectables contain actual food like the real product?
“The Coles Little Shop mini collectables are designed to be long lasting collectables that you can treasure for an extended period of time. The mini collectables are not intended for consumption.”
Jesus warns us that ‘where our treasure is, there our heart will be also’ — and these little tactile icons to consumerism are doing a stunning job of both revealing our consumerism, and passing it on to our kids. Little Shops are like little icons or idols; shaping our imaginations as our kids learn through ‘play’ what it means to live the ‘good life’ in the world, at least according to the commercial agenda of our supermarkets and the companies selling products on their shelves.
At the same time this promotion has been running in our supermarkets, a war has been raging over the way the pricing policies in store are consuming our dairy farmers. Coles has produced these Little Shop toys made from cheap plastic that people are prepared to pay top dollar for, at the same time that their $1 per litre milk is forcing dairy farmers who can’t compete with that price out of their industry; perhaps Coles might coldly suggest that those dairy farmers should pay for their $2 per litre milk to feature in the next Little Shop promotion, but the real issue is with how we’re shaped as consumers and what we treasure. The real issue is that we’ve all become ‘little shoppers’ with horrific results for those we consume in the process. Where’s our treasure? It’s revealed in our consumer decisions — we choose to treasure cheap milk over the farmers who work out of sight to produce it.
A few years ago in our series What The Church Gets Wrong, but Jesus Makes Right we spent a week thinking about greed and consumerism — especially the idea that when a product is cheap, cheaper than it should be to produce, then somebody else is paying; and in Coles pursuit of the perfect little consumer, they’re simultaneously pursuing a world where others pay for the size of the company’s bottom line. It’s not just Coles as some big corporate entity here — we’re all complicit in this system of consumption; whether we’re Coles’ shareholders, or just those of us who treasure cheap milk and plastic trinkets and live accordingly. We’re being habituated, through our consumer decisions, into a sort of view of the world and what it means to be a human that is taking our hearts to some pretty dark places. This should worry those of us who are parents; but it should be equally concerning to those of us who aren’t. Becoming a ‘consumer’; a ‘little shopper’ has disastrous consequences beyond just the price we pay for milk.
Consumerism dictates so much of modern life — beyond our decisions about brands, or which of the major supermarkets we’ll shop in (or what alternatives we might consciously and habitually pursue); our ‘Little Shop’ hearts get brought to bear on our relationships with others (‘what’s in it for me?’ And ‘is there a better offer out there?’? are disastrous questions to ask in the context of marriage and family, and not much better before such commitments have been entered). We’ve talked from time to time about the language of ‘church shopping’ — as though church is an event or product that we consume alongside other ‘off-the-shelf’ decisions, rather than a community of people we commit to as we reject consumption and treasure Jesus.
The challenge for us as Christians is not simply to reject consumerism; to not bring the sort of ‘horror’ that comes from operating as though to be human is to be a ‘shopper’, it’s to treasure Jesus, and help our kids do the same. It’s not enough to simply be a more ethical shopper (though that might be a start), it’s to recalibrate our imaginations, our language, and our habits so that we’re living in the story of Jesus and teaching our kids to ‘play’ and explore what means for us as people. These toys are ‘character (de)forming’ — and they’re pointing our kids to a picture of what life should be; our challenge is to find ways for our kids to play their way into character formation with an utterly different vision for humanity. To have them treasure Jesus. Jesus gives a pretty great tip on what sort of practices might fight against consumerism and a horrific ‘Little Shop’ mentality; practices that might find their way into the language of our kids and the way we play with toys; a way that might teach us that treasure lies elsewhere.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” — Luke 12:34
The antidote to consumerism is generosity — what if we parents looked at the value the world puts on Little Shop toys and then sold them to give to the poor? What if we gave away our collections of Little Shops not just to teach our kids that Jesus says “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15), but to teach them that the antidote to greed is practicing generosity — not hanging on to possessions — because we treasure Jesus more?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a play kitchen stocked with little toys; and the plastic bits and bobs aren’t definitely going to harm your kids if you hold on to them and practice generosity elsewhere — but if we’re not talking to our kids about the good life and where it is found, their imaginations will be captured by these little trinkets. When your kids are playing with their Little Shop toys, take the opportunity to sit with them and talk about possessions — not just the Little Shop toys, but the products they represent, and remind them that despite what Coles might desire — these little icons won’t last forever, plastic perishes, and even the brands behind them will rise and fall, but the Kingdom of God is real and eternal. Challenge them to consider how to be generous with their toys whether that means sharing them, giving them away, or selling them to give to those in need.
These are great conversation starters, but as parents there’s a more important step before the conversation begins — making sure our practices with our own ‘toys’ and the products we consume lines up with what we’re asking of our kids. If we aren’t modelling generosity, but model hanging on to things, if our lives suggest that happiness is found in an abundance of possessions (or even a small number of things we love), then we’re simply reinforcing the same consumer-centred and self-interested message that Coles, Woolies, and the ultimately the devil use to pull our hearts from God.
Little Shops offers the lure — the temptation — of a little plastic bunch of bananas, it’s the same temptation the serpent offered in the garden, the lure of something pleasing to the eye that pulled Adam and Eve’s heart from God and towards things of this world. The kingdom of God is bigger and brighter and more life-giving than any piece of plastic; how are we going to teach our kids to play and live with it in view? It starts with us playing, and living, and consuming as though that is true too. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.