What you do or eat matters more today than the label on what you own…
By Alice Lloyd
The bustling marketplace is so foundational to humanity that it has its own phobia. But like many of our hardwired social anxieties, the root meaning of agoraphobia – literally a “fear of the marketplace” – won’t translate for future generations.
Trading currency for material goods is now, more often than not, an asocial exchange.
Online sales have topped in-person traffic during retail’s reliable blockbuster Black Friday weekend for years. The gap widened again this year, when 7 million more shoppers clicked to confirm purchases than put on pants and drove to the mall, according to the National Retail Federation. The first workday after Thanksgiving, known as Cyber Monday, saw more than 81 million consumers logging in and checking out – 63% of whom browsed from their mobile phones.
Even in the weird year that brought us the brick-and-mortar Amazon bookstore, our old shopping habits have only faded further.
Toys R Us, its stores famously swarmed by rabid parents during the Tickle Me Elmo riots of ‘96, finally filed for bankruptcy in September. The discount department store Kohl’s now hosts return kiosks for Amazon purchases, in the vain hope that shoppers lured by the one competitive convenience of a physical plant will remember their lost fondness for the person-to-person transaction. Macy’s, meanwhile, may be following in the funereal footsteps of Sears and Kmart.
“They’re 20th-century relics,” says Paco Underhill, retail anthropologist and author of the late-’90s marketing bible Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping and, more recently, What Women Want: The Science of Female Shopping. For failing to adapt to the demands of a market that now officially lives more online than off, “These stores,” he tells me, “deserve to die.”
What really forces the spirit of the season, recall, is something undying. The social pressure to buy things this time of year for our friends, family, and acquaintances holds over from the week-long Roman festival of Saturnalia. Townsfolk gave gifts, slaves ran free – if temporarily – and everyone drank too much.
We still indulge in the old traditions, but modern convenience removes the requirement to leave the house first. No longer having to fight through the yuletide crowds or to wait in endless checkout lines listening to pop stars’ trite nouveau standards and pretending not to enjoy them – can we know it’s Christmastime at all?
Underhill recently gave a lecture at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where designers and merchants in training brace for an uncertain retail economy. His topic was the changing nature of gift-giving, and he gave students the difficult news – “We have a generation of gift givers who understand that what sends the right message may be something consumable, or a gift card, or an experience.” Underhill knows his stuff: Restaurant gift cards did indeed top the list of holiday gifts bought by 18- to 24-year-olds this year, according to the tally-takers at the National Retail Federation.
North America and Western Europe’s most reliable spenders of discretionary income, high-earners over the age of 55, don’t go in for material objects like their parents did. The Baby Boomer, coming home in the end to the soupy idealism of her anti-consumerist youth, would sooner shell out for an expensive, enriching “experience” – like one of 2018’s rumored Neil Young concerts or a trip to an unpronounceable island where her friends haven’t been – than an enviable object. Lavish experiences can be more widely and effectively flaunted via social media than beautiful items, of course, which are best coveted by a discrete audience of first-hand witnesses.
In its golden age, we have every reason to forget that luxury shopping actually was an enriching sensory experience on its own. In high temples to American acquisitiveness – like the former B. Altman, now a CUNY campus – one would wander dizzily between counters and racks of dresses and scarves, and leave laden with shiny packages. But these are things I’ve only seen in the movies. According to Hollywood’s account, there were models – like Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, and Betty Grable in How to Marry a Millionaire – whose whole job was to try on outfits for prospective shoppers. And there were attendants, like Joan Crawford in The Women, whose lives revolved around spraying innocent women with perfumes they didn’t want and seducing their husbands. (America, we’re to understand, was great once.)
Today’s shoppers just don’t bend to traditions. Millennials of means, Underhill says, favor “experiences” much as their parents do. And when they go after things, they’re unique, personalized, or at least of an uncommon vintage. Trying to keep up, Tiffany now turns out bizarre takes on the mundane, like a silver “tin can” for $1,000 – anything to make the well-known label seem unusual.
Lavish experiences can be more widely and effectively flaunted via social media than beautiful items, of course, which are best coveted by a discrete audience of first-hand witnesses.
What one does or eats and with whom – or what one can be seen and documented doing – matters more than the old fashion labels in the new field of authoring identity through social media.
It used to be one’s outward appearance primarily that first told the world who we were, without our having to say a word. The Southern master of 20th-century malaise Walker Percy wrote about the needless clothes-shopping impulse as a side effect of the overthought self-image in a memorable footnote to his 1983 mock self-help book Lost in the Cosmos. It rang so true to my late teenage self that I’ve never forgotten it:
“What does a woman mean when she says ‘I don’t have a thing to wear,’ when in fact she has a closet full of clothes? While her statement seems absurd to her husband or a connivance to get more clothes, she is telling the truth. She does not have a thing to wear because all the things hanging in her closet have been emptied out and become invisible.”
Or, “What we buy is who we are,” as Underhill says. But these days, “You don’t have to show your labels. You can show where you went on your honeymoon – or where you’re having brunch on a Saturday.”
At a French bistro brunch spot in downtown D.C. the first weekend in December, I overheard three girlfriends debating whether to brave the crushing mobs and attempt some Christmas shopping at a nearby off-price apparel outlet. Shawna Guillemette, a 33-year-old geneticist visiting from Boston whom I later bothered for a quote, told the two others she’d already done every last bit of her gift buying on Amazon. From trinkets for the yearly Yankee swap at work to ski gloves for a family member who’d coveted hers – everything was easier to find, and typically less expensive, online.
But what really made her quit the time-honored tradition of the in-person transaction? “I just can’t stand all the people,” she said. Her two friends nodded along. But one of them, a red-haired woman who said she makes all her Christmas gifts – soaps, sachets – by hand but orders the materials on Amazon, leaned over to confess, “Watch, we’ll probably end up going to TJ Maxx anyway.”
While main street department stores thrive only in Jean Shepherd’s childhood memories – and shopping malls, though they’re harder to romanticize, grow over with weeds and graffiti across the country’s emptying midsection – “fast fashion” purveyors survive as hunting-grounds for bargain shoppers. Here, the shopping is the experience.
The root of their continued success also answers the literally perennial question of why Black Friday rioters behave the way they do when they run wild, mad for a deal. Yearly reports of tramplings and fistfights in the first hours after Thanksgiving are enough to make anyone fear the modern agora. In-person retail still serves a primordial purpose, deeper than the social need to illustrate for beset shoppers the importance of good manners.
It’s an itch most satisfyingly scratched when one finds a solid enough justification for a frivolous purchase, like my footnote from Walker Percy. Experts like Underhill call such thin rationalizations symptoms of “shopping sickness.” But it’s also exceptionally American: The overfed acquisitive impulse springs from the aspirational core of what it means to pursue happiness. And, even while the venue for the symptoms’ recurrence has mostly left physical reality, the sickness will persist.
Retail shopping – particularly the fevered variety that takes place between now and, for some of us on, December 24 – isn’t going anywhere.
For now, there are even retailers to rush out to when you remember you’d forgotten that one cousin’s new baby. But apart from the adrenaline kick of that last-minute sprint to a still solvent big-box store like BuyBuyBaby for a set of Margaret Wise Brown board books, most of what once made the all-American hassle of Christmas shopping oddly enjoyable has faded from necessity. Come the inevitable dawn of the Amazon drone, our old rituals will have died completely. Browsing for and buying stuff no one really needs, like all small joys, we will only ever do alone with our phones.
Alice Lloyd is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.