The paranoid shopper

by Rob Horning

23 January 2006


My favorite kind of store to be in is a thrift store, and not only because they are cheap. (In truth, they aren’t so cheap anymore, thanks to the eBay effect; afraid their goods will be resold by amateur retailers, many thrift stores have applied a price hike across the board in the last year or two.) What I like most about them is how no effort is made there to cater to the consumer. It’s just a hodge-podge of random stuff barely categorized and distributed haphazardly on the shelves and racks. The real hard-core thrift stores don’t even have shelves; they just have clothing massed in a heap and you sort through and buy by the pound. If there’s music, it’s often the worst species available on the radio—religious music or smooth jazz (religious music for the soulless suburbanite?). They are often in some semi-industrial or abandoned neighborhood, retro-fitted in something that used to be a grocery store or a hardware outlet; often you can see where the aisles used to be because the floors aren’t replaced or resurfaced. They aren’t doing a thing to “shop for customers.” They don’t give a crap about who I think I am or who I want to pretend to be, and that’s just how I like it.

No strategies have been developed to make an “experience” for the shopper or to give their trip to the store an implied narrative through well-choreographed signage and a carefully sequenced goods designed to prompt certain “should I buy” questions in the receptive consumer. Sociologist-turned-marketer details a lot of these ploys in Why We Buy, a book I found extremely interesting, albeit in a counter-intuitive way. It’s good to know what retailers have learned about shoppers’ tendencies and biases, in their attempts to lull shoppers into a comfort zone, so that one can systematically resist it. If you are “comfortable” while you are shopping, you’re probably in trouble, as this means you’ve let your guard down at precisely the moment it’s most important it be up. Also, comfort comes at a cost. If you are experiencing some mellow feeling in some store, you’re probably going to pay for it in some way, or will very soon. Shopping is an ersatz experience, an experience substitute; if you permit retailers to gull you into thinking it’s an activity in itself, you’ve surrendered already—you’ve given up on real experience, on having an actual life. It seems imperative to resist that at all costs, especially as the buyosphere expands and engulfs more and more of the space we inhabit. So when retailers learn from Underhill that shoppers tend to veer right upon entering a store, you should remember to veer left and avoid the trap set for you there. When Underhill points out that shoppers don’t notice anything until they’ve acclimated to the inside of the store, often 20 or 30 feet from the door, you should remember to try to acclimate yourself sooner, get yourself braced up. When a sign has been placed to amuse you while you are forced to wait in some predictable way, ignore it. If there’s a promotional video playing, for God’s sake, ignore it. Amuse yourself weith your phone if you must. By denying retailers the opportunity to cater to you, you gum up their works and you just might get to see behind the curtain, see through to real costs of things, real discounts available perhaps, and most of all, you’ll be having a real experience instead of some bogus fantasia. Make yourself comfortable in your own way; don’t let yourself be sucked into the stereotypes about what we prefer that marketers like Underhill make convenient for us.

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