The Bonhomie Of Buying
Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What by Lee Eisenberg
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Our shopping habits may be easily manipulated, but they are not as irrational as critics like to believe.
By LAURA VANDERKAM
As the economy tanked last year, pundits claimed that we were entering a new age of frugality. We would stop shopping and learn to “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” like our grandparents who lived through the Depression.
There was just one problem with this prediction: Given how much money is riding on the consumer economy, legions of people now spend their lives figuring out how to make the buying experience more alluring than the days of pulling Gold Medal Flour down from the shelves of the general store. As an IBM report once noted: “We probably know as much about the behavior of the human shopper in its natural habitat, the mall, the grocery, or the department store, as we do about the activities of any species of animal in the wild.” Now former Esquire editor Lee Eisenberg adds his own take, examining why modern Americans find shopping so irresistible.
Mr. Eisenberg’s previous book, “The Number,” was magnificently hyped as offering a new way of looking at retirement; “Shoptimism” aims to offer a similarly novel view on the big idea of buying and selling. There is a coincidental affinity between the subjects: One of the reasons we have such trouble saving for retirement is that merchandisers are so good at getting us to part with our money in the here and now. As for his credentials, Mr. Eisenberg tells us that he was once a senior executive at Lands’ End, in addition to being “a breadwinner, which means I take a proprietary and sometimes overbearing interest in how my wife and kids choose to disburse what hard-earned money I bring to the party.”
Mr. Eisenberg approaches consumer culture more as an anthropologist than as what he calls a Buy Scold (berating Americans for spending money on things they neither want nor need). He turns up some interesting tidbits. Black Friday shoppers, just after Thanksgiving, say that they’re battling the crowds on behalf of themselves rather than shopping for loved ones. November is usually the second biggest month for buying things, after December, “but not every year—global warming,” Mr. Eisenberg says, “can play havoc with sales of sweaters and winter outerwear.” The brains of tight-fisted folks react to high prices in the same way they do to physical pain. We absorb advertising messages so well that—in a world saturated with PC Guy vs. Mac Dude ads—we actually perform better on creativity tests after being cued by references to Apple products. At the same time, brands are losing their vice grip as shoppers figure out that generic items are often made in the same factories as branded ones and as retailers like Whole Foods manage to turn their private labels into desirable goods.
Much of this information has been written about before—Paco Underhill, the author of “Why We Buy” (who makes an appearance in “Shoptimism”), has explored shopping habits for some time now, and Martin Lindstrom‘s “Buyology” tackled the neuroscience of shopping last year. But it’s entertaining to have it compiled in one big box store of a book, packaged in Mr. Eisenberg’s genial prose.
After a while, though, his endless taxonomies of shoppers (e.g., Bring-Back Queens and Friends of Faux, with a soft spot for designer knock-offs) get as tedious as finding the right tie from a sales rack at Macy’s. And Mr. Eisenberg misses opportunities to create a more compelling narrative. As part of writing “Shoptimism,” he took a job working at a Target store during the holiday season, but he offers maddeningly few details about the day-to-day realities of the experience, aside from the fact that he learned not to touch the wheelchairs of disabled customers. By contrast, we hear more than we need to about his field trip to help his wife buy a little black dress. This escapade is supposed to show the shopping experience from initial idea to postgame wrap-up, but it seems to take the same hour and 45 minutes to read that Mr. Eisenberg reports he spent in the store.
Despite such meandering, Mr. Eisenberg does eventually stumble onto the overarching argument inherent in his title: Shopping, in modern America, is fundamentally an optimistic activity. While our shopping habits are easily manipulated, they are not quite as irrational as critics like to believe. For most of us shopping, when done right, really does make us feel better. We buy because it “confers instant membership in a community.” We buy “to express ourselves.” Most important, we buy because “buying is fun, sociable, and diverting, an escape from boring, predictable existence.” If a sweater or an iPod can do that, and Mr. Eisenberg is convincing that it can, then no wonder, recession or not, it’s hard to keep Americans out of the stores.
Ms. Vanderkam is a writer in New York.