Our relationship with shopping is tumultuous, at times romantic and one we think very little about, writes Lee Eisenberg, who has been both editor-in-chief of Esquire and creative director at Lands' End. For Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What, Mr. Eisenberg spent a year poring over consumer research and tailing both marketers and shoppers, including his wife, Linda, who we find combing through racks of dresses in the book's opening pages. She tries them on, scrutinizes, discards and finally picks a winning black frock.
Then Mr. Eisenberg puts the scenario to consumer-behaviour experts, who come up with theories on why she chose that one. That little black dress turns out to be more than a hot party number - it has a "transformative power."
Knowing just how marketers try to win us over and understanding our own reasons for paying up will help us become better consumers, he says, especially in money-conscious times.
But despite all the economic turmoil, he tells The Globe and Mail, we're not cutting up our credit cards just yet. Nor should we be.
Why call the book "Shoptimism?"
There's been hundreds of books written from the point of view that we are greedy, that our eyes are bigger than our wallets and that we need to pare down. And obviously there's some wisdom in that and I don't reject that. On the other hand, [there are]positive aspects of consumer culture and buying.
What are the positive aspects?
Buying things is and can and should be a form of creative expression. If you take a certain amount of pleasure in the beauty of an iPhone or an Apple computer or something like that, I think you are expressing your taste. The things we buy also outlive us, and they kind of stand in for us, in a certain way.
How would you describe our relationship with shopping? Is it rocky? Love-hate?
It's not love-hate, but it can be a very sort of anxious thing. We don't often think through this long tradition that goes back to the 19th century and before that in which there's this puritanical view of buying, that somehow excess is a bad thing. I think [that's]what's still banging around inside of us.
You write that marketers are having to work very hard to keep us captive, disguising ads as news and entertainment.
We've been living with this enormous amount of advertising for a long, long, long time. There's almost nowhere you can go to escape it, including the bathroom stall. With the coming of the Internet and consumer reviews online … you have an enormous amount of information, opinion and data about what you might be shopping for, which renders the slick ad in the newspaper or on television not nearly as persuasive. When we see an ad, we don't necessarily tune in to it. So they're looking for other ways into our consciousness.
Are shoppers being talked down to? And by whom?
Anti-consumerists have basically taken the position that we are sheep, that the marketing community basically leads us around by our noses, that we are these really innocent, poor, manipulated little victims. And the problem I have with that is it doesn't give us any credit.
Marketers compile a lot of information about us to help them find that consumer sweet spot. Why do we know so little about ourselves as shoppers?
People will tell me, 'I really don't shop a lot,' and then every time I call them they're out shopping. It's a very subjective kind of call. There's a theory that may distinguish why some of us are cheapskates and some of us are spendthrifts, but that part of the brain that sets off an alarm when we have to pay for something may or may not flash as red in my brain as it does in yours. You walk into a store and the setting is right, the lights are right, the music is right, the clothing is right or whatever might be right and it will cause a dopamine explosion that makes you feel better. And again, there's nothing particularly sinister or wrong with that.
What are some of the myths about male and female shoppers?
The clichés are that women shop, men buy. But when I went shopping with people - and I went shopping with a lot of men and women - I found that a lot of women are what men are supposed to be, which is the 'grab and goers,' who hate shopping. When a man spends hours and hours and hours online looking for the right cellphone or something like that, he's shopping. But the culture tends not to notice that.
We're reading this having endured the worst of the recession. Are we changing as shoppers?
I keep getting asked about the upcoming holiday season and I think what's going to happen is that obviously we're still going to buy and we're going to buy presents for people. But I think we're going to buy more thoughtfully, we're going to look for value, we're going to look for things that are more durable and even more meaningful.
You'd think we'd see an increased resistance to consumerism.
What's happening is not so much a rejection, but a shift into different values attached to buying. We are attracted to the new and the novel, we are attracted to a change. You can say that you can be mesmerized in a bad way by 'new' or 'cool,' but you can also argue that it makes the culture we're living in much more interesting, ever-changing, dynamic, entertaining.
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