Saturday, May 3, 2014

Shoptimism: A Book Review

Posted by Christie for BeautyLifeandLove

So, you probably know by now, much of my inspiration comes from what I read, and I just finished Lee Eisenberg’s Shoptimism:  Why the American Consumer Will Keep On Buying No Matter What.  And although trend lines in Eisenberg’s research may have experienced a bit of a hiccup due to the recent economic downturn and the ensuing effect on consumer spending, I believe the recession actually helped the author prove his point even more poignantly.  Nothing can separate us from the love of Buy, neither height (of unemployment), nor depth (of debt), nor any other commercial thing.

Americans will buy—No Matter What.  Eisenberg establishes that as a fact.  The more interesting question, however, is “Why?”  The author proffers a mélange of theories.  Is it the evil “Sell Side” that knows how to push the right advertising, marketing and branding buttons on us like pins in a customer voodoo doll, conjuring up a bewitching, intoxicating brew that has us handing over our credit cards before we even realize it was the scented department store air that hit us?  (Eisenberg discusses how retailers carefully infuse their ventilation systems with just the right amount of the perfect scent—i.e. baby powder in the baby department— subliminally seducing us to linger longer and thereby increasing the likelihood of a sale.)  Eisenberg argues the Sell Side has blurred the line between a genuine “need” and a superfluous “want.”  (I tend to agree, although it’s a difficult point to prove; who’s to judge which qualifies as which for someone else?)

Let’s explore an alternative perspective.  What if it’s not “Them” (the Sell Side)?  What if it’s “Us” (the Consumer)?  Eisenberg reveals that Americans buy for status (social belonging, self-esteem, prestige and recognition), and we also buy as a form of therapy, retail therapy to be exact.  Either way, Eisenberg argues Americans are what they buy (identity) and why they buy (status/therapy).  For example, when it comes to what we buy, we use brands (like Apple or Harley-Davidson) to connect us to others and to express our values:  Mac users are cool, creative free-thinkers; hogs are rebels (the author’s characterization, not my own).  Furthermore, we use self-gifting to lift our spirits.  Studies done with fMRIs showed subjects’ pleasure receptors danced when exposed to merchandise and the prospect of purchase.   

And though I learned a lot of interesting facts about…advertising, marketing, Romantic vs. Classic Buyers, Buy Scolds, Spend Thrifts and the like, I felt a little bogged down with an overly detailed exposé of the Sell Side (the “Them and Ewe” concept) with its marketing gurus, Sherlock-like consumer snoops and digital data miners meticulously calculating our every click, reviewing retailers’ big brother video footage and recording our online rants and raves.  I felt particularly overwhelmed by Eisenberg’s chapter on the “four ways to think about advertising” (appropriately named “Bombarded”) and by the “Unified Buy Theory” which, only after painstaking investigation, forces the reader to conclude such a theory simply doesn’t exist.  But despite excessive mapping and charting, the theories that don’t pan out, and other non-quantifiable ambiguities, I emerged with a greater understanding of the retail rat race. 

My favorite part of the book was when Eisenberg trailed Paco Underhill, self-proclaimed “retail anthropologist” and also one of my favorite retail researchers.  He wrote the book Why We Buy:  The Science of Shopping--my first journey into the world of American consumerism, or “shoptimism.”  To be honest, I was a little star-struck by Paco’s appearance in the book.  It was that same feeling you get when your favorite celebrity has a cameo in a movie or television show you’re watching (like for me, when Condi played the piano on 30 Rock).  But I digress.  Back to the point at hand.      

Although I found the author’s research more disparate than comprehensive, I can’t really fault him for it.  Covering the entire retail-scape of American consumer culture is quite an undertaking.  The book moves from LBDs*, to automobiles, jewelry, men’s, women’s and children’s attire, shoes, accessories, food, drink, groceries, home goods, music, toys, perfume, cologne, the list goes on and on…  So where does one begin when cataloguing the whole of the American buy?  I’m not sure.  But what I am sure of, is that the “Why” of the Buy delves deep into the cultural and individual identity of every American and is complicated and compounded by multi-million dollar advertising, marketing and branding schemes to capture our attention, our loyalty, and most importantly, our dollars.    

I admire Eisenberg’s tenacity in tackling such a sprawling concept as the sociology of shopping, and with such a diverse resume (apparel company executive, Editor of GQ, and pseudo-academic), he may very well be a most appropriate person for the job.  Though I have to admit, I did get a little lost in the weeds ‘round about the center of the book, that won’t keep me from reading another of Lee Eisenberg’s works:  The Number, a New York Times Bestseller, which I’ve heard is quite good.

Which leads me to my next review…Page One (the documentary that takes you): Inside the New York Times.  Stay tuned for more.

*For those men reading this who don’t know, LBD stands for “little black dress,” not to be confused with an associated acronym VPL, or “visible panty line.”

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