Shopping for customers

by Rob Horning

19 January 2006


In an earlier post, I fulminated over the possiblity of RFID tags being used to stratify shoppers and allow retailers to cater better service to less-thrifty and savvy shoppers. Retailers could then punish those shoppers who favor generic products and exclusively buy loss leaders and work to discourage them from returning to the store. This Marginal Revolution post explores a similar phenomenon (particularly in the comments) wherein Argentine clothes stores try to raise their cache by refusing to carry product that would fit fat people. Argentina passed a law trying to forbid this kind of de facto discrimination, forcing stores to carry a stipulated range of sizes. (America takes a different tack to shop for customers, using “vanity sizing”—allowing size 6 to float up to what once was an 8 or 10—to soothe the weight-conscious.) Should the government take these sorts of measures? It hampers the retailers “freedom” to voluntarily sell whatever they choose to whomever they choose (so Milton Friedman would probably see it as a travesty as horrific as Social Security, the National Park Service and medical licences), but worse, it dignifies the idea that being fashionable is some kind of necessary right that must be protected by the state. (As I pointed out yesterday, I would rather see the state stamp out fashion in favor of the uniform, Mao-suit style, then promote stylishness, which serves mainly to intensify social anxiety while clumsily signaling class prerogative. Fashion is a way to procure a pseudo-improvement in status—“I dress cool!”—while having no real improvement in class or living standards or earning potential—“I live in a roach-infested tenament”.)

One of the post’s commenters writes, “plenty of store clerks will insult women customers to try to guilt-trip them into buying more cosmetics. Maybe they are also trying to get rid of customers who aren’t slaves to fashion.” The whole shopping-for-customers thing is something I never really considered, but explains a lot of the discomfort I’ve felt going into record stores (which usually follow an “annoy-the-squares” policy of blaring irritating music, hiring surly clerks and arranging everything by some crypto-Dewey Decimal system of genre classification that makes it impossible to find something as straightforward as a Badfinger album) and hipster clothes stores (whose clerks favor the blank, baffled stare at you when you enter the store and disrupt them from their narcissistic reverie). These stores, which trade in cool more than in commodities, have a vested interest in making sure the customers are what they percieve to be cool, so they set barriers to entry and encourage their employees to enforce them. These style-conscious wage slaves are more than happy to have an opportunity to exercise what little power they can ever expect to have in the world (no, I’m not bitter) and make a customer feel like a loser for wanting to buy something. All the choices these clerks have made in their life have been in pursuit of this kind of power, the power to feel more fashionable than someone else, regardless of whether or not that someone gives a shit. That sense of superiority has a value, a price, and the employees in their way get to set it and enforce it by policing the customer pool at their stores and shooing away those who aren’t worthy of those Doc Martens or that MC5 bootleg. So perhaps these stores sell less, just as the Argentine stores lose out on more-zaftig clintele, but they can charge more via the increased status of what they are selling to those fortunate few permitted through the gates. Surely there is a graph to be made that could find the equilibrium between the price increase from cool cach and the sales lost by this kind of discrimination, that could show just how many people it is optimal to humiliate.


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