instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

I Want That!
How We All Became Shoppers

Here is an excerpt from the first section of the book, "What Makes People Shop":

Shopping, I have found, is a subject that makes people nervous. When the subject comes up, they giggle uneasily, as if something deeply intimate and vaguely illicit has been mentioned. In a sense, that’s not surprising. Shopping is at once an exploration of desires and a fulfillment of responsibility. It elicits guilt and pride. It can be burdensome or joyous. Our shopping tells us things about ourselves we might prefer not to know.

Indeed, shopping has a lot in common with sex: Just about everybody does it. Some people brag about how well they do it. Some keep it a secret. Most people worry, at least a little, about whether they do it right. And both sex and shopping provide ample opportunities to make really foolish choices. Some shopping is, like sex, an effort to fill fundamental biological needs. But shopping, like sex, is often playful, though the play is very serious. In sexual relationships we learn about ourselves in relationship to another person. In shopping, we define ourselves through our relationships to things, and to the meanings that our society attributes to them. We try things on, and as we do so, we try on identities. A generation ago, sales ladies used to clinch a sale by telling the shopper, “That’s you!” We browse through the glossy fashion magazines and rummage through the bargain bins and look, as if into a lover’s eyes, and wonder, “Is that me?”

Sex has, of course, been around for a long time. Shopping is more recent. Some say it’s only about two hundred years old, though I put the age at closer to five hundred, which is still but a blip in the million years or so of human evolution. Yet, the acquisition and use of objects, while not unique to our species, is nevertheless one of our defining characteristics. It is primordial.

It used to be thought that adapting objects as tools is unique to our species, though we now know that’s not true. Nevertheless, Homo sapiens is the only species that knows it needs something to wear. In the Bible, this insight comes at the same moment as the knowledge of mortality, pain, sex, and the loss of Eden, a place that offered everything a couple could need. Part of the terrible knowledge that Adam and Eve gained was that they would need to labor, and still always desire something more.

Shopping is the contemporary expression of our complex relationship to things. Objects are useful. They are repositories of magic. They carry meanings that are more powerful than words because they can embody the paradoxes of life.

For most of human existence, only a few people have had the power to possess large numbers of objects, to manipulate the world, to create images for themselves and their families that the world would recognize. For the billions who live in today’s world of abundant consumer goods, this is commonplace magic. But it is magic nevertheless, and few are willing to give up the power of choosing and owning desirable objects.
Shopping is not inherently good or bad, but deeply human. It is the way in which contemporary people address perennial questions: What will we feed our families? How will they be clothed? What tools are needed to survive and prosper? How should we present ourselves to the world? How should we express our deepest beliefs?

All of these questions concern the duties and obligations that tie people together as families and as societies. But within this framework of responsibility, there is plenty of room for choice. Shopping may not be the most important expression of human freedom, but it’s as close as most of us get in ordinary life. And it is this sense of great possibility that makes shopping a modern phenomenon. At some times in humanity’s past, people may have seen themselves as buffeted by forces beyond their control. At other times, we may have thought ourselves to be playing a fixed role in an orderly universe. Today, we embrace the dream of self-creation, in an environment of constant flux. We need things to help us survive and prevail in this changing world. We buy them at Wal-Mart, on line, flea markets, supermarkets, Sears and Saks.

Like other deeply human acts, shopping has some bad aspects. We expend time and money buying goods we’d be better off without. We let the incessant dissatisfaction of shopping distract us from pursuits that might be more rewarding. We frequently allow our lives to be measured only in terms of the material possessions we amass. The thrill of immediate gratification can distract us from planning and saving for the future. We participate in a culture of wastefulness that may shadow the lives of generations yet to come.

Yet, despite these psychological quandaries and moral dilemmas, just about everybody shops. It is the aspect of modern living that people in newly developing areas embrace first and most enthusiastically. There are millions of people on earth who live in circumstances where they cannot shop, but most of them would do so if they could. Shopping offers great satisfactions, most of which have little to do with the accusations of self-indulgence to which shoppers are often subjected.

People giggle at shopping, perhaps, because of the absurdity of humanity’s fate—looking for a bargain in an indifferent universe. Shopping is ridiculous because what our spirits need is so vastly out of proportion to the goods we settle for. Like the prizes bestowed by the Wizard of Oz, the treasures we cart home don’t begin to satisfy the longings that sent us on our journeys.

Several years ago, at a flea market, I purchased a mail order catalogue from the mid-1950s. Its pulsating pastel illustrations of swooping, jet age products had caught my eye, but this dog-eared volume proved more profound than I had expected. It offered a view of the passions that come into play when people shop. It was about fantasy and necessity, generosity and greed, thrift and indulgence, identity and possibility. It was about freedom. It was about responsibility. It was about love.

Someone else had long since pored over the catalogue and annotated it, ever so faintly, in pencil. Throughout the catalogue, which offered items for every setting from the barn to the boudoir, items had been earmarked for particular people. The handwriting was girlish, but the choices seemed well considered. There were enough erasures throughout the book to indicate that she was giving her selections at least a second thought.

The sheer number of contemplated purchases—close to 150—suggested that her generosity was vicarious. But that made it no less real. Surely, she would have bought all these products if she could have, and felt good about bestowing them on each of her carefully selected recipients. She was doing what we all try to do when choosing a gift, connecting a person and the feelings we have toward that person, with an item that, in some way completes, transforms, or at least pleases the recipient.

In some cases, the items selected met a practical need. This seemed particularly true of the items marked for Papa: work boots, rugged trousers, a warm coat, a selection of tools. These seemed to suggest that her father lived a life of hard physical labor, probably on a farm. The most grimly useful item selected, however, was probably the new sump pump chosen for Uncle Al.

More often though, the gifts chosen seemed to reflect a desire to transform the recipients by giving them things that they would never buy for themselves. The elaborate slips and brassieres earmarked for Ma, Agnes, and Aunt Lucille probably fell into that category. There were also a lot of pretty clothes reserved for a young girl named Jane, and as I leafed through the catalogue, I began to think that Jane was, herself, the annotator of this volume. The exercise of being generous to others often inclines us to be even more generous to ourselves.

Like many gift-givers, the girl with the catalogue—Jane?--seemed to want to leaven necessity with a touch of luxury. Among the other items earmarked for Ma were an electric range, a steam iron, a supply of pink plastic clothespins, a fine leather handbag, and a dinner dress with sequins. (What would Papa wear when she wore that?)

Even the flannel shirt chosen for Uncle Al in the then-fashionable coral and charcoal color combination indicates that his niece wanted him to have something nice to wear. He was more than just a wet basement to her.

The catalogue told Jane about the moment in which she was living. It showed her what colors were new, what appliances people wanted, and what girls her age were wearing, at least in the midwestern, small-town world reflected in the catalogue. Its compilers were guided by an understanding of what its recipients would really buy. And because people more often buy in order to fit in with their neighbors rather than to compete with them, the catalogue provided Jane and others like her with a guide to belonging in her time and place. In contemporary jargon, the catalogue helped create a virtual community.

As she paged through the catalogue, Jane learned not only about the world, but also about herself. The catalogue contained dozens of dresses and skirts and blouses she might covet, but she selected only a couple of each. In doing so, she was in effect, defining her identity, refining the image of Jane that she presented both to herself and to the world.
A century and more ago, when mail order catalogues afforded those who lived outside of the big cities their only convenient glimpse of a growing new world of consumer goods, people began to call them dream books. Now, though the dream books have gone, we have almost infinite dream worlds available on the Internet, and huge but cozy communities of consumers accessible through television home shopping networks. “Just looking” constitutes much of the traffic on the World Wide Web, as it does in the malls and on Main Street.

Still, it’s wrong to equate “just looking” with “just dreaming,” even if an afternoon at Home Depot or an evening of QVC viewing consists of looking at things that will never be bought. “Just looking” may be more properly understood as a form of domestic due diligence. It is a process of acquiring information, making comparisons and forming judgments about how to best make use of the resources available.

If this young woman’s scrutiny of the catalogue were simply an exercise in vicarious greed, the items chosen would consist solely of pretty things for herself and would, therefore, have been far less interesting. What made the annotations fascinating was Jane’s effort to be responsible by balancing needs and desires. Being a good consumer is an important part of being a grown-up in contemporary society, especially for women. In another time, Jane might have been expected to learn to spin or to sew, but by the 1950s, it was most important for her to learn how to shop.
And as she marked up the catalogue, she was doing what all shoppers do. She was defining the needs of several individuals she knew well. She was imagining how possessions could make her life, and those of people she loved, just a little bit different. She was confronting a whole world of material possibilities and making discrete, thoughtful choices. Deciding how to make the best use of the resources available is not a trivial act. Your future can depend on it. Marking up the catalogue may have been a pastime on a long rainy afternoon, but it was also practice for an important task she could expect to be doing all her life. Learning to shop is essential to being grown up. Making material choices is a privilege, a responsibility, and an essential activity of modern life.