Shopping Paranoid

Economics often assumes consumer behavior is driven by a very limited set of directives — get more, pay less, and always choose the thing that pleases you the most — and that the consumer will always be aware of and pursue what her best interests are by these criteria. For example, she’ll wake up in the morning, see that interest rates have fallen, and go right out and start that re-financing on her house. And she’ll refuse to let money sit as cash when there is money to be made in a wide variety of tempting investments. And she won’t pay ATM fees or overspend for coffee drinks and pressed sandwiches.

But in truth, consumers don’t do this, which leads some economists to think there is something deeply wrong with them. Unlike corporations, which are duty-bound to do nothing else but pursue profit, aggregating the behavior of those who constitute it and rendering extraneous any motive those people might have that’s not single-mindedly focused on growth and expansion, individuals on their own are at times frivolous, wasteful and, most worrisome of all: unpredictable in their spending habits.

The “Economics Focus” column in the 14-20 January 2006 Economist considers the problem and concludes that one reason for the erratic behavior is that markets are scary: “Consumers may doubt themselves, the products on display and the people flogging them.” The president of the American Economic Association adds, “Opportunities for choice may be interpreted as opportunities for embarrassment and regret.”

These claims echo the sentiment of psychologist Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice (Ecco, 2004), which elaborates the many ways in which a surfeit of choices leads to a decrease in personal satisfaction. Beyond a few token choices, which help us reaffirm our sense of autonomy and freedom, options in the marketplace are inconvenient, forcing us to differentiate among options we’d rather take for granted. The mere existence of choice where we don’t expect it, or on a confounding scale that’s unexpectedly large, evokes anxiety because its promises fails. In these instances — confronted with technical jargon related to computers or cars or even vacuum cleaners and mattresses — the array of options is used to bully the customer into an awareness of his ignorance and force him to cower in a state of helplessness so that in his vulnerable state he may be exploited. As he hastens to rid himself of his sense of weakness and regain the sense of command that comes with spending, he is prone to pay too much on something pointless or unnecessary.

But such fear of the marketplace is nothing new; after all, that’s partly how haggling disappeared from industrial economies. We are accustomed to thinking that with industrialization our retail choices have increased in every way and that we can choose among different products pegged at different prices. But really we surrendered our right to negotiate prices on the fly in order to grant producers the sort of guaranteed pricing they require to mount large-scale operations. Hence, we are encouraged to be wildly grateful to retailers such as Wal-Mart when they grant us something — lower prices, sales — that was once much more in our own power to secure.

Most Americans have never had to haggle and would certainly shop a lot less if they did. They are more than happy to pay for the illusion of security that stable, uniform prices provide. If they routinely end up paying more than they might have had to otherwise, at least they still have saved in terms of time spent researching the true cost of things. But the disappearance of haggling isn’t merely a matter of liberating customers of the need to be informed. Haggling makes overt the fact that shopping is not the win-win scenario marketers and consumer society apologists pretend it is, wherein consumers become kings and queens of the retail fantasia and magical and fun retail “experiences” are to be had by all.

The fact is, people don’t all pay the same price for the same goods and experiences. Shopping is competition; there are winners and losers. As consumerism dominates more and more aspects of our lives, the opportunity for us to feel like losers multiplies. A consumer economy extends the competitiveness and the incentives of winning to all experience, commodifying it all while making the degree to which one “wins” the primary measure of the satisfaction of any experience; the “scoreboard” mentality I described in “Marginal Utility: Thrift Store Gentry“.

But ceaseless competitiveness is exhausting and stressful. Thus, it prompts indecision and evasiveness, attempts to avoid the market, and a desire circumvent its risks. The market has the effect of disincentivizing itself. So contrary to capitalist triumphalism, people aren’t naturally thrilled at the prospect of the entire public sphere becoming what cultural historian Thomas Hine has called the “buyosphere”; that portion of our customary habitat that produces a state of mind in which we understand who we are only in terms of shopping.

Increasingly, the buyosphere is foisted upon us, and our anxiety over the need to ceaselessly compete in it is defined away as weakness, mental infirmity, pathology. Though we are told that shopping is natural, as fundamental to our happiness and as instinctual as sex, we need to be continually motivated to shop and given the “courage” to spend and make those heroic purchases. Hence, advertising. No matter what product advertisements promote, they all have this in common: they all suggest that it’s crucial that you are buying and that you are no one if you are not. So we are cajoled, prodded, harangued at every possible moment, from every possible perch.

My market fear, my anxiety about the buyosphere, becomes most pronounced when I encounter stores that “shop for customers”, that seek to preserve the aura of ‘the cool’ of their goods by catering only to an elite group of shoppers; those being connoisseurs who signal to other would-be customers the store’s credibility. If you’ve ever felt uncomfortable, say — going into record stores, which usually follow a 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 anything, or into hipster clothes boutiques on fashion-victim landing strips like St. Mark’s Place in New York, whose pseudo-punk clerks favor the blank, baffled stare at you when you enter the store and disrupt them from their narcissistic reverie — then you know what I’m talking about.

These stores, which trade in ‘cool’ more than in commodities, have a vested interest in making sure the customers are what they perceive to be cool, so they set barriers to entry and encourage their employees to enforce them. All the important decisions they’ve made — all the tattoos and haircuts and investments in outré apparel — have been in pursuit of this power to feel more fashionable than someone else, regardless of whether that someone else gives a shit. That sense of superiority has its price, and in their way these employees determine and enforce that price by policing the customer pool and shooing away those who aren’t worthy of those Doc Martens or that MC5 bootleg. If these stores sell less as a result, they can still charge more to those fortunate few: the dupes who have already proven their eagerness to be fashionable at any cost by getting past the gatekeepers. Surely a graph could be made that charts the equilibrium point between the price increases enabled by cool caché and the sales lost by this kind of discrimination; it could show just how many people it is optimal to humiliate.

Of course, there’s a place for those customers who don’t measure up to boutique standards, a place that exercises no value-building discernment and makes no effort to cater to anyone: the thrift store. There you’ll find a random hodge-podge of already-rejected detritus, barely categorized and haphazardly distributed on the shelves and racks (if there are any — the hard-core thrift stores don’t even have shelves; they just have clothing massed in a heap for you to sort through and buy by the pound). Thrift stores are often located in semi-industrial or abandoned neighborhoods, retrofitted in spaces that once housed grocery or hardware stores; often you can see where the aisles used to be because the floors aren’t replaced or resurfaced.

At Value Village, the clerks don’t care about who I think I am or who I want to pretend to be, and that’s just how I like it. They’ve developed no strategies to contrive a pre-choreographed “experience” for me. And there’s certainly no implied narrative developed through well-placed signage and carefully sequenced product displays designed to prompt “should I buy” questions in the receptive consumer, as Joseph Pine and James Gilmore advocate in their creepy marketing manual, The Experience Economy publisher? Year?

Written in that optimistic and infuriatingly insipid tone common to all management tomes, The Experience Economy encourages retailers and manufacturers to concentrate on pitching their products as experiences — you should remember the drama of acquiring a good and the story of how you might use it rather than the thing itself — in hopes of extending the power of brands right into our very memories. After all, if people are going to remember things, they may as well see commercials there in their minds. Shopping itself becomes the product; the act of acquisition is replacing the object itself as the crucial component of retailing. Pine and Gilmore excitedly describe how thrilling it is when goods are “experiencialized” into occasions for ersatz narratives and how much fun it is to go to stores that resemble amusement parks; sporting goods stores where you can actually play basketball, Disney stores that make you feel like you’ve been stuck in a cartoon yourself.

This conceptual shift is really nothing new; it mirrors the shift advertising made in the ’20s from product descriptions to evocations of the person you’d be with such a product in your life. It figures that the natural next step from lifestyle advertising would be to dispense with the products and market the lifestyle directly, with the products reduced to props in the narcissistic drama provided for you. (This also solves an associated problem; that many people believe their homes are too cluttered with stuff. Since consumer goods have become in general less useful for anything but the initial therapeutic excitement fix, this has worsened: We love the flash of pleasure that comes from buying something, but we’ve run out of stuff we actually need and places to store it.)

But these phony experiences, the latest manifestation of what Daniel Boorstin in The Image (Atheneum, 1961) dubbed “pseudo-events”, make the effort required to have any other sort of experience that much greater. By packaging experience, the unpackaged variety becomes rarer, more elusive; it becomes more and more tempting to accept what is already prepared for you whether or not it corresponds to your inclination. Despite what chamber-of-commerce booster types claim, shopping is an ersatz experience, an experience substitute, a way to substitute ownership for activity. 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. Ultimately, you are much more malleable than the world around you, so you change to suit what’s there.

Interaction with the commercial world of ‘experiences’ thus pulls us further away from whatever ontological self might have existed while all the time promising to make ‘real’ that self. What happens instead is that the superficial, passive self most convenient to the operation of the experience economy ends up being produced in all of us.

Perhaps the fear of markets is irrational and self-defeating, since we can’t escape them anyway. But considering their zero-sum nature, we’re right to be fearful. In fact, it might be best when shopping to be downright paranoid. To escape the deeper anxiety of perpetual status-signaling competition through goods and to preserve meaningful freedom — freedom that is something other than a retail choice and a shopping experience — one needs to be always alert, always defensive, always paranoid, always negating. All the while understanding that being ‘happy” is not the same as being ‘free’. Try resisting the attempts made to gull you or worse, cater to you and produce ersatz experiences for you.

Sociologist-turned-marketer Paco Underhill details many such ploys in Why We Buy (Simon & Schuster, 2000), his catalog of the ways urban planning research can be used to seduce people into lingering in retail spaces. Why We Buy is essentially an engineering manual for extending the buyosphere. It’s a useful book to read because it reveals how retailers try to lull shoppers into a comfort zone, and it teaches us what we should systematically resist.

If you are experiencing some mellow feeling, if you are “comfortable” while shopping, you’re probably in trouble, as this means you’ve let your guard down at precisely the moment that it’s most important it be raised. 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. 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. Paradoxically, paranoia may be the necessary preliminary to our being able to make ourselves comfortable in our own way.

Why bother being perpetually paranoid in the commercial sphere when you could try instead to opt out of shopping altogether? The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to remove the buyosphere from one’s life. We’re embedded in it and in many ways we wouldn’t know how to get along without it. Chances are we wouldn’t be able to know ourselves without it, and that’s what it’s so scary. As Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, the authors of Nation of Rebels (HarperCollins, 2005) point out: “We find ourselves in an untenable situation. On the one hand, we criticize conformity and encourage individuality and rebellion. On the other hand, we lament the fact that our ever-increasing standard of material consumption is failing to generate any lasting increase in happiness. This is because it is rebellion, not conformity, which generates the competitive structure that drives the wedge between consumption and happiness. As long as we continue to prize individuality, and as long as we express that individuality through what we own and where we live, we can expect to live in a consumerist society.”

That’s the undoing of ostentatious nonconsumerism. It’s self-aware in the wrong way; in a satisfied rather than slightly insane and paranoid way, which reinforces the sorts of distinctions that fuel consumer culture. If you use consumer goods to manufacture distinction, it doesn’t matter how creative you are about it: you have accepted consumerism’s fundamental value; what Baudrillard calls “the code.” To resist this value system in a society such as ours you must have it in your mind always, which unfortunately achieves almost the same effect as accepting it unconsciously. It’s like being in a band and trying not to have an ‘image’ for your band. We know how well that works.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.