Sunday, March 6, 2016

Shopping… Or Buying?

I.                 Shopping as Experience

A recent article, “Mindful Shopping,” (Rosemary Counter, Real Simple, March 2016) featured advice for women on how to become shopping-resistant, or at least to resist buying things in general.  These suggestions covered impulse buying, shopping addiction, peer pressure, emotional issues--anything that would indicate that “you’re not thinking practically.” Thinking, that is, to evaluate material acquisitions carefully and in the context of their long-term value in order to rule out “temporary desires.”  

Although the article keeps referring to “shopping,” what the writer is really talking about is buying – and this is a critical distinction often poorly understood, even by experts.  For example, retail anthropologist Paco Underhill’s bestseller Why We Buy should have been entitled How We Shop. You can read through the book a dozen times and learn a lot about shopping behavior and how to more efficiently position your product in front of the shopper.  But learn absolutely nothing about what makes people decide to actually purchase a particular product.

Because there is a real distinction to be made here, key to understanding this primal human behavior, which is the critical differences between buying as opposed to the shopping experience. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors understood the difference. Shopping is gathering – and most of what is gathered is information.  Actual buying is much more like hunting – a dedicated search to isolate a single prey with the intent of bringing it home. Buying can involve shopping but shopping isn’t dependent on buying.

Online “shopping” is often more like hunting. This is borne out by the fact that 3D store retailers complain that people shop their stores, then once the buy decision is made, go online to make the purchase. Basically the online hunting behavior of the quick, most efficient, kill—after gathering information about the main options on the ground.

What is shopping?

The Dalai Lama once said, “Shopping is the museum of the twentieth century” which, for a guy who eschews material goods, is very on-target.  We subconsciously scan our environment every waking moment – it’s how we determine, among other things, our place in the social hierarchy. Shopping is simply a dedicated application of that primal process. We are also a tangible species.  Meaning we need to touch things to feel the weave of a fabric, the heft of a camera, or the motion of a car. It’s been calculated that picking up and holding an item makes an emotional connection that increases likelihood of buying by 60%.

There’s a reason that 68% of consumer decisions are made at the point of purchase – we need the validation of our senses to make a final decision. When you consider that these are simply outcomes of automatic subconscious processes of our brain, it’s little wonder that shopping in stores and malls is the top leisure experience for Americans, and has been for the past century.


Shopping gives us a massive amount of information about our physical and social environment in a tightly condensed and edited package. We’re searching out many kinds of opportunities here (shopping), not a single item to be checked off the list (buying).  Making selections and purchasing may be one of the goals of shopping as experience, but not by any means the primary one.  Many a productive shopping trek takes one to many stores over several hours, yet the outcome isn’t a purchase, but a wealth of ideas that may take time to germinate and blossom into eventual purchases down the line. 

Shopping for cars, for instance, does not start in the showroom. Our research determined that people start noticing the difference between their car and other cars on the highway at least six months before they even realize they are in the market for a new car. Overall, the car-buying process involves at least 18 months spent in scanning first the highways, then the ads, then the showrooms in order to funnel down to the best fit to our latest driver identity.

II.               And many other priorities are at work in the shopping universe

There is a strong gender component, of course. Women tend to be far more detail-based and relationship-oriented than men. Hence the inter-gender issue of the wife dragging the husband along for a long and frustrating experience that men are generally not wired for.  (Suggestion to retailers; provide day care for husbands – if only comfortable armchairs and a TV off in the corner, otherwise he will soon amble up and mutter “OK” – which every woman knows is male code for “I’m done here. Let’s go.”) On the other hand, the wife or girlfriend in the sporting goods store with the male shopper, even without any intention to buy, wants more time to look around.  It’s hunting versus gathering.  This is the fundamental style difference in how people relate to the world for sale: buying versus shopping.

Shopping is also a social experience. Women tend to shop with friends or relatives. They validate each other’s decisions. It’s all part of the social hierarchal process that runs beneath our conscious horizon. The exception is grocery shopping, with the significant other hauled along for heavy lifting and paying (in the trade, supermarket workers refer to husbands as “wallet carriers”).

Most important, shopping gives us a valuable index to what other people are thinking about and valuing.  As tastes change across the seasons and over the years, shopping is the landscape showcasing those shifts in taste, in styles, in materials, color palette, and design.  This landscape scanning always helps us to position and scrutinize our own preferences alongside and in contrast to those of others.  We are social primates, which means constantly comparing our own thinking and behaviors to that of others and to benchmarking against a group norm (these groups change out mentally, depending on what life arena we’re thinking about—family, school, work, community, future, aspiration). 

Shopping (typically in malls) offers a secure, inviting public space for solo or group excursions, offering food, entertainment, restrooms, and affluent décor.  It is the mandate of high-end malls, especially, to design for an environment that makes shoppers feel affluent while they stroll, socialize, and dine.  In shopping people can bond as they deliberate and speculate on the many objects of culture on display, in an exercise identical to, as the Dalai Lama pointed out, museum-going.  The museum shop, we find, is the best way to index what’s on offer in the galleries, and the ideal start, rather than finish, of any museum visit.  No buying is generally involved.  But museum shops offer the value of amulets or souvenirs so important to marking and recalling expeditions, which visitors have just completed.


Window shopping is the fine tradition of a form of imaginative projection.  As we scan the display of jewelry, candy, clothing, shoes, cameras, pens, or perfume, we are invited to project ourselves into an array of thematic worlds.  There we can savor the potential keyed by simple objects or ideas. We can enjoy glimpsing a life featuring these “props” as active agents in a lifestyle or story starring our own hopes and ambitions.  Marketing and advertising students are actually taught that they are “creating desire,” which is nonsense. Desire pre-exists in the brain of the shopper. They can’t tell you what they want. They may not even be aware they want it. But they will recognize it when they see it (Steve Jobs said people decided to buy once he showed them his products, not before).

The job of marketing and advertising, then, is to tap into what’s already in the mind, and remove any obstacles that might block shoppers’ recognition of value.  In other words, buying can’t operate without full consent and cooperation from the shopper. 

Americans are very good at understanding and creating shopping environments. We’re not so good at creating buying environments. We know that picking up an object signals an increased tendency to buy, but we don’t know what made people pick it up in the first place. In fact, most new products, and their advertisements, fail by a ratio of nine to one.  We’re selective about what we actually take home and even more choosey about letting products into our lives by regular use.  Ask anyone about how many unused or underused products are taking up space in their home (and how hard they are to manage, store, or get rid of).  Professional organizers have built an industry out of this problem of productive buying versus imaginative shopping.  Yet the answer to matching strict buying behavior to the benefits of scanning and projecting desires is not to limit imagination but to recognize these activities as distinctly separate, each with their own ethic, ideals, and goals. These imaginative impulses are embedded in the culture and can only be activated by sellers, not created.   

Shopping isn’t about procurement. It is closer to surveying, exploring, dreaming, goal-setting, identity fantasy—the deliberate process of creative re-creation of the world to explore and match up to the many potentials of the self.  To understand how shopping works, we need to look at the brain that runs on the agenda of cultural values.

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