The first Comic Relief event was held in 1988 with a big TV show and a plastic red nose you could buy to support the charity. They changed the nose on each subsequent occasion to boost sales (and to prevent you reusing the old one). I bought them all...
...right up to the year when they produced 9 different noses and packaged them individually in a "mystery bag". This meant you didn't know which variant you were buying so "collecting them all" suddenly became a wasteful trial with an expected outlay of £25 rather than £9, so I gave up.
But this year they're back to one single nose again, a special environmentally-friendly eco-nose made almost entirely from plant-based materials. It has a honeycomb-paper structure, folds flat for easy packing and was designed by Sir Jony Ive. So I thought I'd buy one of those.
You buy red noses in Sainsbury's, everybody knows that, which is good because there are Sainsbury's pretty much everywhere. Except this year for the first time they're not selling them. According to Comic Relief "Our partnership with Sainsbury’s is now solely focused on tackling food poverty both at home in the UK and internationally" which is simultaneously uplifting and dispiriting, and no use if what you want is a red nose.
Instead this year you can only buy a red nose from Amazon. Apparently this a good thing.
It is indeed true that more Britons shop with Amazon than Sainsbury's, considerably more in fact, but that doesn't necessarily make getting your hands on a red nose quick and easy. If you're buying a book or a toaster then sure, adding a red nose at the checkout is pretty convenient. But if you don't have an Amazon delivery scheduled and just want a red nose by itself, the follies of online shopping become clear.
The nose itself costs £2.50, but then they wanted to charge me another £2.50 postage and packing making a grand total of £5. That's 50% of my money going to a delivery company rather than to citizens in need, which feels like an appallingly inefficient way to donate to charity. What's more it's estimated that only about £1.80 of the nose's cover price goes to the charity, the rest goes on costs, so Comic Relief would only be getting 36% of my £5. There must be a better way to buy one.
Sounds good, except that's most of the UK's population excluded. At present there are only 20 Amazon Fresh stores in the country, 19 of which are in London and the other is in Sevenoaks. Unless you're anywhere near the capital, buying a red nose via mail order is your only option.
As a resident of go-ahead east London, however, I have at least one Amazon Fresh within walking distance and can get to the majority of the rest with ease. So that's what I tried.
If you're not familiar with Amazon Fresh it's a new kind of supermarket without tills, cashiers or even baskets. Instead you walk round, put stuff in your bag and walk out (in full view of the store's beady cameras), and the Amazon app on your phone charges you as you leave. I'm told it feels quite disconcerting the first time you try it. But you can only gain entry at the electronic gates by confirming that you have the app on your phone, which I don't, so I wondered how attempting to buy a red nose would go.
n.b. This is not the store I visited, lest anyone from Amazon be reading and keen to take their store assistant to task.
'Get your red nose at the hub', the sign outside on the pavement said. I wasn't sure what the hub was, it wasn't labelled, but I assumed it was the cashierless space just inside the front doors. Nobody was around but there was a button to press so I pressed that. Nothing happened except that the stand wobbled, this being an impressively flimsy way to support a button.
"You need to press the button," said a lady walking over. I pressed it harder and this time a green light lit up, but to no avail because it turned out the lady who'd walked over was the store assistant. She didn't have a name badge or an obvious uniform, but I may just not have been looking very carefully. "I'd like to buy a red nose," I said. And so the charade began.
I explained I didn't have the Amazon app on my phone, nor was I up for downloading it for a single transaction. She said that meant I wouldn't be gaining further access to the store but reassured me I would still be able to buy a red nose. I was told I couldn't pay my £2.50 by cash, which I had guessed, indeed I'd kept my stash of 50p coins in my pocket for fear of looking like a Luddite throwback. More importantly the store didn't have any tills so I couldn't pay by card, nor by waving my phone, essentially because there was nothing in the store to scan anything contactless against.
The assistant was being a bit apologetic by this point. "I don't know why they don't still sell them at Sainsbury's," she said, gesturing across the road. "We haven't sold a lot. They didn't send us many." Neither of these statements surprised me. "I'm afraid we have to ask you to scan this on your phone", she said, gesturing at a QR code propped up on the counter. "I do know how to do that," I said before she could issue point-and-click instructions.
The code took me to a page on the Comic Relief website where I got to choose how many noses I wanted and whether I wanted to be upsold anything extra. Then it wanted my name and email, so I typed in some rubbish, and then it wanted my address and card details. The assistant looked on almost pitifully as I stood in the doorway extricating my card from my wallet and attempting to enter all the details correctly. There was also some sympathy there I thought, the two of us being of roughly similar age.
"Now you need to show me your confirmation screen," she said, which I deduced was the 32-digit transaction ID on the page I'd finally reached. I flinched because the stupid alias I'd entered was now visible in a thankyou message at the top of the screen, but thankfully she seemed only baffled rather than suspicious. And then she reached behind the QR code and whipped out a red nose in its paper case and handed it over. I was out of the store quite fast.
I don't want to get all Old Man Yells At Cloud about this, because I did actually manage to buy a red nose in only about five minutes, which is a lot faster than if I'd ordered one by post. But it would have been considerably easier to buy one in a proper supermarket, not a bespoke cyber-walled auto-grocery, simply by handing over a stack of 50ps or waving a card.
This, alas, is the first year that a child can't save up their coins and buy a red nose on the high street. Adults are similarly stuffed unless they happen to live in one particular corner of the country and don't mind negotiating a digital rigmarole. When charitable goods essentially go delivery only, the danger is that we spend more on sending them than goes to those who need our help. The 2023 red nose is a thing of beauty but, unless you're Amazon-ing anyway, best give it a miss and just send a donation direct.