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Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What

Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What

3.6 8
by Lee Eisenberg

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In this smart, engaging book, Lee Eisenberg, best-selling author of The Number: A Completely Different Way to Think about the Rest of Your Life, leads us on a provocative and entertaining tour of America's love/hate affair with shopping, a pursuit that, even in hard times, remains a true national pastime.

Why do we shop and buy the way we do? In a


In this smart, engaging book, Lee Eisenberg, best-selling author of The Number: A Completely Different Way to Think about the Rest of Your Life, leads us on a provocative and entertaining tour of America's love/hate affair with shopping, a pursuit that, even in hard times, remains a true national pastime.

Why do we shop and buy the way we do? In a work that will explain much about the American character, Eisenberg chronicles the dynamics of selling and buying from almost every angle. Neither a cheerleader for consumption nor an anti-consumerist scold, he explores with boundless curiosity the vast machinery aimed at inducing us to purchase everything from hair mousse to a little black dress. He leads us, with understated humor, into the broad universe of marketing, retailing, advertising, and consumer and scientific research--an arsenal of powerful forces that combine to form what he calls "The Sell Side."

Through the rest of the book, Eisenberg leads us through the "Buy Side" -- a journey directly into our own hearts and minds, asking among other questions: What are we really looking for when we buy? Why are we alternately excited, guilt-ridden, satisfied, disappointed, and recklessly impulsive? What are our biases, need for status, impulses to self-express, that lead us individually to buy what we buy?

Are you a classic buyer (your head wants to do the right thing), or a romantic buyer (your heart just wants to have fun)? How do men and women differ in their attitudes towards shopping, and does the old cliche -- "Women shop, men buy" -- apply any longer?

Of special interest are the author's findings on the subject of What Makes a Good Buy? We all purchase things that we sooner or later regret, but what are the guidelines for making purchases that we'll never regret? What, for instance, defines the perfect gift?

Brimming with wit and surprise, Shoptimism will be delightful and instructive reading for anyone with a credit card and a healthy curiosity about American culture, through good times and bad. For here, in one vivid journey, is a memorable, panoramic portrait of our everyday self-delusions, desires, and dreams.

Editorial Reviews

Sarah Halzack
The book is divided into two parts, "Them Versus You" and "You Versus You," effectively defining our urge to splurge as a constant battle. But by casting light on the many factors that influence purchases, Shoptimism gives readers the chance to take control of their spending and do it more efficiently.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Eisenberg (The Number) reveals the mechanisms of manufacturing needs and wants in this book that explores every facet of retail consumption, from advertising to behavioral marketing, from malls to Internet communities. The author presents his own family's consumption habits as a litmus test, which, while providing context, effectively sidelines the experiences of those who do not embrace consumerism with the same fervor. Dividing the retail landscape into "Buy" and "Sell," Eisenberg provides a cornucopia of consumption trends, brain scans indicating beer preferences, zip-code-based lifestyle data, psychographic information, blogs and "buzz" measurement. Searching for a "Unified Theory of Buying," the author dismisses analysts such as Marx for misunderstanding needs and Schor for scolding consumers. Entertaining the possibilities of "Brand Communities," the author superficially considers Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital, settling finally on a typology of "Romantic" and "Classic" buyers. Although a thorough compendium of today's marketplace, the author's friendly "come along with me" tone sometimes devolves into glibness, and in accepting conditions as is, his observations might prove as fleeting as buyer's remorse. (Nov.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
Why do Americans buy what they buy? What tricks do advertisers use on unsuspecting consumers? These are some of the questions addressed by Eisenberg (former editor in chief, Esquire; The Number: A Completely Different Way To Think About the Rest of Your Life) in this illuminating work. With his humorous and captivating style, Eisenberg leads readers through his shopping experiences, with which readers can easily identify. Ultimately, this is an overview of the psychology of buying and of the advertising and retailing industries all in one book. In addition to using stories from his own family, Eisenberg relies on interviews with shoppers, advertisers, and retailers as well as his short stint working for a popular retailer during the holiday season just for the experience. Readers who wish to explore the subject further will find a plethora of sources throughout the book. VERDICT Well researched and including an extensive bibliography, this study of shopping in America from the perspectives of shopper, retailer, and advertiser may at times overwhelm the reader with too much information, but it's an engaging read and would be a solid choice for those interested in consumer or marketing studies.—Holly S. Hebert, Rochester Coll. Lib., Rochester Hills, MI

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Read an Excerpt

PROLOGUE: The world, stuffed into a little black dress

WE MIGHT AS WELL START, JUST TO work the kinks out, by going dress shopping with my wife. Now, if you’re a man reading this, it’s a safe bet that you’re not thrilled about the prospect of going dress shopping with my wife, much less with your own wife, or going shopping for much of anything save for handheld electronics or a massive, high-definition video monitor. Chances are, if you’re a man reading this, you’re a grab-and-go sort of chap when shopping by yourself, or a wait-and-whiner when shopping with your wife. Either way, you’re not likely to be wild about coming along on this foray. Grab-and-goers and wait-and-whiners have been subjected to serious academic scrutiny. I’ve looked at some of those studies, but they haven’t told me much beyond what I already know. If you’re a typical grab-and-goer, your overriding mission is to get into and out of stores quickly and stealthily. If you’re a wait-and-whiner, you’re crabby and impatient. You sit sullenly on a backless bench (if you can find a bench) while your partner picks over merchandise or tries things on, interminably. For now, if you’re that kind of dude, hang in there. This first expedition won’t take very long. And, happily, you can come along without leaving the comfort of your La-Z-Boy, with a caipirinha to keep you chill.

The reason for the dress-shopping trip was, on the surface, straightforward: Linda needed—maybe just wanted, the distinction gets tricky, as I’ve already mentioned—a little black dress. The occasion was the forthcoming annual fund-raiser at our kids’ high school. It happens every spring. The school draws up a shopping list of goodies not easily obtained through its annual operating budget: electronic SMART boards for classrooms, new computers for the library. The agenda is always the same: parents arrive and stand around chatting. Drinks are passed, lubrication for the main event, a Dutch auction. Besotted, we file into the auditorium, where we watch an upbeat video that depicts the school’s students acting in ways they never do at home. The video portrays them bright-eyed and alert, paying rapt attention to teachers, not shirking assignments or zonked out on video games. They race across playing fields with joyful enthusiasm, not chewing Oreos with their mouths open and bingeing on Red Bull, as they do in the basement. The video is a well-wrought infomercial calculated to persuade parents that our kids are flowering, not floundering. When the video finally ends, there’s lots of clapping, and then a professional auctioneer takes the stage to adroitly work the crowd. When the bidding sinks to a donation level you can live with—i.e., live with now that you’re a little tipsy and worth a lot less than you once were—you raise your numbered paddle, a volunteer records your pledge, and that’s it, save for a high-spirited raffle—two tickets to a Bears game! Then everyone files out for dinner and chitchat with other parents and teachers. Drink enough wine and the evening, while costly, turns out to be more festive than it sounds.

Dress Code

The invitation, in keeping with the tradition that this was no ordinary fundraiser, but a “gala” fund-raiser, calls for “cocktail attire,” meaning that men are expected to wear business suits and women, well, cocktail dresses, that is, not long dresses with beads and excessive froufrou, just classy dresses, usually but not necessarily black. When the invitation arrived, Linda mentioned something about having worn the same thing to the past two fund-raisers and that she “wouldn’t mind” looking for a new little black dress for the upcoming occasion. Now, normally she would just go off on her own and look for something like this, leaving me at home to fiddle around online. But given that I was beginning research on a book about why and how people buy, I asked whether I could tag along with her, an embedded reporter. There’s a catch, I said. If I go, the reader goes, too. Linda was fine with that, or so she said. Deep down I knew she wasn’t wild about having me—let alone you—play peeping Tom as she slipped in and out of dresses in a cramped changing room. I don’t imagine this is anyone’s idea of a pleasant shopping experience, not that shopping experiences are always pleasant to begin with, whether you travel solo or in a platoon of friends or total strangers.

We started out walking south on Michigan Avenue. Hundreds of shops line the Magnificent Mile, large and small, cheap and expensive, freestanding and tucked away in vertical malls, the majority in business to sell clothes and accessories to women. I intend to revisit the Mile quite a few times before this story ends, assessing stores that sell everything from American Girl dolls to Harley-Davidson dog collars. But for now the plan was strictly to look around for a little black dress at one of the Mile’s large department stores. Why a department store? Linda is a pragmatic shopper. She knows, every woman knows, that department stores offer a generous selection of dresses at a suitable range of prices, and there are always—especially in crummy economic times—things on sale. Department stores practice what the trade refers to as Hi-Lo pricing, meaning that merchandise is initially marked up so it can be methodically marked down to give customers the idea that they’re getting a deal. Because the Hi-Lo game has been played for so long, most of us are trained almost never to buy anything that isn’t on sale. You know it and I know it: the Hi-Lo game is something of a scam, yet we fall for it again and again.

Our first stop was to be Bloomingdale’s. But on the way there we passed a run of ultrachic designer boutiques. Impetuously, we stopped in at Chanel, if only to see how the fabled French fashion house defined that season’s edition of the little black dress. At the front of the shop, where merchants display what they deem to be “impulse buys,” we encountered a rack of Chanel sunglasses—more precisely, and especially at these prices, Chanel eyewear. Each pair sat in its own elegant Lucite cubby, dozens of cubbies in all. Between the columns of cubbies, in elegant typography (lest anyone forget she is looking at eyewear in a store called CHANEL, not Lane Bryant):

The repetition of CHANEL CHANEL CHANEL reminds us how the concept of product branding came to be: a red-hot iron searing (so as never to fade from living memory) a mark of possession into an animal’s hindquarters.

Duly singed, we browsed the generous selection of eyewear styles, many in the form of immense, wraparound tortoiseshell frames with none-too-modest overlapping Cs anchored to the temples. (The iconic Cs were designed by CC herself, back in the midtwenties.) I gathered that on some of those frames the Cs were crafted in real leather, a level of detail that comes at a price: Chanel sunglasses cost $350 and up, a rather expensive impulse buy by any reasonable standard. But relative to other impulses that might grip us on a rainy-day lunch break or a Saturday afternoon when we need a mood lift, $350 is not an unreasonable price tag—assuming we’re well enough fixed to buy our antidepressants at Chanel. At Chanel, $350 doesn’t buy much more than what you’ll find near the front door. Venture deeper into the shop and you’ll encounter spirit-enhancing Chanel shoes that start at around $500; chase-the-blues-away handbags at $1,000 and up. Of course, the savvy shopper knows that Chanel knockoffs—sunglasses and handbags mainly—are available at considerably less cost on street corners in most major cities, assuming one is willing and able to live with Not The Real Thing. Asian shoppers, for example, are notoriously designer-brand fixated and demand the Real Thing. It’s commonly reported that over 90 percent of Japanese women own something Louis Vuitton, having spent on average $247 per handbag. A great many teenagers also crave the Real Thing, though only teens in certain ZIP codes have any interest in, or can afford, Chanel. But even teenagers who live beyond Scarsdale, Greenwich, Lake Forest, or Beverly Hills happily pay a premium for the Real Thing, if the Real Thing is North Face, Juicy Couture, or Rugby, among other brands that, at any given trend nanosecond, impart a necessary je ne sais quois to the self-expression their hormones are aching for.

We arrived at Bloomingdale’s on this chilly weekday only to find the store so empty you could shoot off a cannon without hitting anybody, as my father used to say. Department stores are facing stiff challenges in an age when buyers prefer to shop in specialty stores, spectacular flagship stores, and big-box discounters. Stepping off the escalator, I (we) followed my wife across the empty sales floor to a far wall, where a thicket of little black dresses clustered. They carried labels—ABS, Bianca Nero, Kay Unger, David Meister, Laundry by Shelli Segal, Chetta B—that meant nothing to me and not much more to Linda. Maybe some were private labels masquerading as “real” brands, maybe not, who knows any more? Department stores are hell-bent on rolling out their own labels, because there’s more profit to be made by cutting out the big-name middlemen and women—Ralph, Liz, Donna, Ermenegildo, and the rest. At JCPenney, for example, about half the chain’s apparel sales derive from exclusive Penney lines: Arizona, Worthington, a.n.a., and so on. At Macy’s and similar department stores, private-label sales have been increasing three times faster than sales of tried-and-true brands. In 2007, Macy’s made Tommy Hilfiger a “strategic alliance” offer he couldn’t refuse. Hilfiger agreed to sell his signature line exclusively at Macy’s, in effect making Tommy a semiprivate label. New and instantly recognizable private labels are launched routinely in today’s marketplace. Many carry the signatures of celebrity endorsers who have little hands-on involvement with design: Madonna’s line at H&M on the lower end, Kate Moss’s at Barney’s New York on the upper—that is, before Kate went on to bigger things at Topshop.

Linda began to work her way through the acres of chrome racks, rattling hangers as she went, lingering a bit longer near dresses on racks with little SALE signs attached. The signs promised a further reduction of 25 percent should one of the dresses make it through the decision-making process and wind up at the cash register. Keeping a safe distance, I watched as Linda sifted through the lot, feeling fabrics with a thumb and forefinger to determine whether they have what the trade calls a “good hand.” There was something a bit melancholy about those dresses on sale: wallflowers at the orgy, they seemed to me. Buyers had passed on them for whatever reason: bad lines, a bad “hand,” or perhaps a bad Bloomie’s buyer had simply bought too many of them. Out of compassion for the on-sale dresses, but also out of hope that we could save a few bucks, I secretly rooted for Linda to find a dress here worthy of marriage. A man for you, right? In any case, fifteen minutes of hanger rattling yielded results: a quartet of little black dresses, all priced between $200 and $300. Linda handed them over to a saleswoman who ushered us into a changing room, where we locked ourselves in.

Changing rooms can be grim, as everyone knows. A survey reports that seven out of ten shoppers want changing rooms to be big enough to accommodate two people; seven out of ten want to be left alone in the room, whatever its size, with no salesperson hovering outside. The changing room at Bloomingdale’s seemed to have been spruced up recently. There was an enormous mirror, squeaky clean, and a comfortable leatherette bench for me (you, too) to slouch on as my wife slipped out of her street clothes and prepared to try on the four little black dresses lucky enough to have made it to the quarterfinals. Each seemed to be waiting, dying, to be the one asked to the cash wrap, then on to the gala.

For a lot of shoppers, particularly male shoppers, to get out of your clothes, try something on, take it off, try something else on, take it off, and so on until it’s time to put your own clothes back on, is one of life’s—that is, life in a consumer society’s—most dreaded rituals. Many women, too, have told me they hate trying on clothes; others, not so much. Linda doesn’t seem to mind, even with onlookers present. Those who dislike trying on clothes give several reasons for their dyspepsia. One: cramped, usually dingy, quarters. Two: you’re not really sure what looks good on you to begin with—does it make my ass look big? Three: the dressing room feels like an isolation booth, just you and your insecurities trapped in a small space. Four: you’re usually conflicted about spending money on whatever it is you’re trying on. Five: there’s all too often the annoying presence of the dreaded hoverer, who keeps coming to the door, calling out questions presumably meant to be helpful but that in fact rush the decision-making process and apply even more pressure:

“How ya doin’ in there?”

“Everything OK in there?”

“Can I bring ya anything else in there?”

“How’s it goin’ in there?”

Linda shimmied into the first dress (the label read Laundry), zipped up the back, and with narrowed eyes took a good hard look in the mirror. Though no expert, I’d say the technical term for what she had on was “corseted”; that is, rather tight around the midsection and calculated to amplify what in my wife’s grandmother’s time was referred to as a “bosom.” After staring at her reflection for a minute or two, turning left, turning right, checking out her legs, shoulders, and accentuated bosom, Linda rendered her verdict:

“I look like a dominatrix.”


Quick color commentary: this much I know from personal experience—there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Settling on a dress, a necktie, a pair of high heels or athletic shoes, is complicated business. The decision to buy has to do with far more than “I like it/I don’t like it.” Many of the things we decide to purchase—clothes for sure, but also home furnishings, cars, kitchen appliances—must surmount hurdles far beyond those relating to a product’s practicality or, sad to say, its objective “value.” The decision to buy something like a dress is a kind of puzzle. Multiple pieces need to fall into place before we, as buyers, cough up a yes. If a potential purchase crashes into one of the hurdles, or various puzzle pieces fail to fall into place, the Buy is rejected. In the case of dress number 1, which now lay rumpled on the floor, Linda decided it flunked the Appropriateness Test. You don’t go to a fund-raiser at your kids’ school dressed as if you are panting to take a riding crop to the headmaster.

Okay, back to the action—dress number 2.

This time my wife didn’t step into it, she pulled it over her head (which, come to think of it, is another reason to hate trying on clothes: it messes up your hair). Until that moment, I’d never thought about why women sometimes step into dresses, while at other times they pull them on over their heads. I suspect many other men haven’t thought about it either. But watch people shop, you learn things. If a dress has a zipper on the side, a woman pulls it over her head. If the zipper’s in the back, she steps into it. The dress my wife was pulling on now, by Chetta B, was one she’d especially liked while rifling through the racks. One tiny problem; the store didn’t have it in her size—Linda generally wears a 6, this was a 4. But she elected to try it on anyway because, as every woman knows, size matters, though not very much to clothing manufacturers, for whom “size” is fairly arbitrary. I happen to know this because when I worked at Lands’ End I often heard merchants talk about how one label’s 2 is another label’s 6. Part of this has to do with shrewd marketing strategy: let ’em eat cake, but if you want to sell ’em clothes, trick ’em into thinking that the cake they eat doesn’t put on pounds. The trade term for the ruse is “vanity sizing,” which flatters customers into believing they’re more svelte than they really are. The deception occurs worldwide, and authorities abroad are acting. In 2007 the Spanish government declared war on vanity sizing, decreeing that female store mannequins be draped in size 10 or larger. As far as I know, no such trailblazing legislation is pending in our own nation’s capital, even though, according to an industry trade magazine, more than one out of two female shoppers in this country say they have a problem finding clothes that fit, with inconsistent sizing a prime reason. Over 40 percent say the sizes of clothes in their closets range widely, and nearly 20 percent say they have items they’ve never worn because they never bothered to have them altered.

In this case Linda elected to try on the dress anyway, because if she really loved how she looked in it, she could ask the store to order another in the next size up. Well, it turned out that the 4 was too small, but that’s not what scotched the deal. What scotched it was that this little black dress had made a much better impression when worn by a cheap plastic hanger than by a living human being. The dress had, as Linda put it, “way too much going on”—waves of pleats running up and down the dress from the neck through the bosom, all the way to the hem. In other words, the dress had failed to clear the Aesthetics Hurdle.

Dress 3 was by Vera Wang, whose bridal shop on Madison Avenue has for years been where the affianced rich, or those who strive to be, order their wedding gowns and dresses for bridesmaids. But like just about every other luxury brand—Chanel, Gucci, Vuitton, Armani, and so on—Wang has over the past several years elected to go wide (not mass, darling, wide, or in Vera’s case double wide) by expanding her product line in every conceivable direction. These days, buyers aren’t so much fashion victims as brand victims. Or, more precisely, brand-cum-lifestyle victims—a brand such as Vera Wang isn’t just about luxury, it’s about a way of life. Result: if you’re into Wang, bring on the Wang. A Vera Wang brand victim can now slip her painted toes into Vera Wang footwear, hide behind Vera Wang eyewear, sparkle in Vera Wang fine jewelry, spray Vera Wang fragrance behind her ears and under her breasts, write thank-you notes on Vera Wang fine papers, set out Vera Wang china and stemware when she entertains, even slumber on a Vera Wang mattress, which, however ludicrous a Vera Wang mattress might sound, is perhaps the most logical brand extension of all. Wear Vera Wang on your wedding day, sleep on Vera Wang that night (and, should you be so lucky, through the many years of blissful nights that follow). And now there’s also SimplyVera, a low-price Vera Wang line that is to Kohl’s what Martha Stewart Everyday was to Kmart: a Faustian brand-extension risk.

The (not Simply) Vera Wang dress Linda had by now slipped on bore little connection to a wedding day or night, save for a subtle hint of same: a couple of cream-colored buttons on the front, covered in fabric—brocade? Jacquard? Turkish taffeta? what do I know?—one associates with a wedding dress. I couldn’t help but see those buttons, however, as anything but two wide-open eyes staring out from just below the bosom. I stared at them, they stared back. They unsettled me but didn’t seem to bother Linda, probably because she couldn’t make eye contact with them except in the mirror. After considerable reflection, Linda judged the dress to be simple and tasteful, “kind of cute,” she said, a phrase women shoppers commonly murmur when they run across something they are, in fact, wild about. When Linda asked me what I thought of the dress, I hesitated for a moment. I’d resolved to be as invisible as possible throughout this expedition, a fly on the dressing room wall, better to observe things as they really happened without influencing the eventual buying decision. But discipline failed. I told Linda I didn’t honestly think the shape of the dress was all that flattering, and hard as I tried, I couldn’t take my eyes off the buttons that kept staring at me. So I told her so. That comment was, sorry to say, sufficient to kill the deal. The moments also illuminates yet another Buy hurdle: doubt—a reservation planted by a husband, a wife, or some other companion along for the ride.

(Hang in there, guys; we’re almost finished.)

The fourth dressed turned out to be made by the same designer who gave us the dominatrix dress, only this one, in the words of my wife, was “flapperish”: a dress to Charleston in, not that anyone does the Charleston anymore, not even at bar mitzvah parties. After turning left, turning right, walking to the mirror, then back to her original spot, Linda uttered the magic words—“but it’s also kind of cute.” It was also kind of—no, not kind of, incredibly—wrinkled. No one had bothered to give the dress even a cursory steaming when it was unpacked it from the shipping carton that carried it on its journey from a village in China, where it had—no surprise—been sewn together. But even wrinkled, the dress was cute, I had to admit. The skirt was short, just above the knee, a plus given that Linda has really nice legs. The dress came across as playful and kicky. Linda thought so, too, but therein was buried the seed of yet another potential reason to reject: the Projection of Self Hurdle. “I think it might be too young for me,” she said, all the while examining the dress from every angle. Buying clothes gets especially tricky when you reach middle age, Linda remarks all the time. A woman of a certain age doesn’t want to buy things that make her look frumpy, but she also doesn’t want to buy things that make her look like she’s trying to pass for a chick three decades younger or, just as bad, a bar-hopping cougar on the prowl. There’s nothing less appealing than that, Linda says. But I could tell she truly liked herself in that particular little black dress, which is doubtless why she spent so much time in it, noting that she generally appreciates how she looks in a flared skirt, and that the dress would be knockout worn with black tights and slingbacks. Then—threateningly—the Age Cloud passed over again.

“Tell the truth, is it too young for me?”

“No,” I said, by now dying to get the hell out of there. “I think you look really great in that dress. Young, but not too young. Not a hottie, no way.”

After further reflection, Linda decided to buy the dress. And—cue the brass section—the chosen one turned out to be on sale! We had made it across all the hurdles, and my wife now had a new little black dress to wear to the gala fund-raiser. For those of us keeping score:

Price tag: $290

(Less) Hi-Lo discount (20%): $58

(Plus) Illinois sales tax: $20.88

(Bottom line) VISA charge: $252.88

Total time spent looking to buy little black dress: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Postgame Wrap

The excursion now in the bag, what are we to make of it?

Bluenoses out there—anticonsumerist Buy Scolds—would argue that dark forces conned my wife into thinking she needed a new little black dress in the first place. They’d point a damning finger at slick advertising carried in fashion magazines that, in fairness to the Scolds, Linda sometimes reads. More generally, Buy Scolds rail at the bloated, superficial culture that seduces women into thinking that it’s what’s on the outside, not the inside, that counts.

Others who comment on reasons we buy say that even if my wife wasn’t exactly manipulated into purchasing the little black dress, she was conditioned by decades of media images. Armani suits, you’ll recall, registered on men’s radar with the release of American Gigolo, starring the impeccably Armani-clad Richard Gere. As for the little black dress, movies and fashion retrospectives have relentlessly promoted it as an iconic wardrobe staple, a must-have. Credit belongs to Coco Chanel, who presented us with the LBD long before her trademarked interlocking Cs were seared into the hindquarters of our brains. Chanel’s triumph was aided and abetted by Vogue, which in 1926 proclaimed the little black dress “a sort of uniform for all women of taste.” Thirty-five years later, Audrey Hepburn etched the little black dress further into mass consumer consciousness. Remember the opening scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, when Holly Golightly wanders the empty morning streets of New York City, lovely, lonely, vulnerable in a little black dress (designed not, as it turns out, by Chanel but by Givenchy)? Holly nibbles breakfast out of a brown bag and peers into the Tiffany store window on Madison Avenue. In fact, that very dress lives on, having turned up for auction at Christie’s a few years ago, where it fetched close to a million dollars—or four thousand times what we paid for Linda’s on-sale dress at Bloomingdale’s.

Okay, maybe the movies helped write the script. But hand the little-black-dress dossier over to an academically accredited Buy sleuth and you’ll get an entirely different explanation for what happened at Bloomingdale’s that day. Academics who practice qualitative research—i.e., those who, armed with clipboards, cameras, or binoculars, either in full view of subjects or concealed behind pillars, watch people shop and follow up what they observe with in-depth interviews—would seek to decode a pattern of behavior in my wife’s pursuit of the little black dress. I put the matter to Albert Muniz, who teaches marketing at DePaul University, specializing in how people form communities around the brands and products they buy. He told me he’d try to draw a finer picture of how the buying of the dress linked up with the occasion at hand—the fund-raiser—and what a woman such as my wife “desires to say about herself via the dress. To get at this,” Muniz said, “I’d interview that woman before she went shopping. I’d want to know plenty about her background, her life story, to gain a better understanding of where she was coming from. I’d ask her to take me on a tour of her closet, identifying favorite outfits. I’d want to know what her goals were for the event in question. Does she want to impress and influence others? And I’d like to accompany her as she went shopping, asking her to explain her choices. Finally, I’d have a follow-up interview after the fund-raising event. I’d want to know how it went, who was there, and how she felt about her purchase afterward.”

Muniz’s approach parallels that of Americus Reed, a young faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Reed is a social psychologist by training. After I recounted the dress episode, he told me the impulse to purchase is related to our desire to obtain “feedback” in the form of social acceptance. Given that the evening was branded a “gala,” that it called for “cocktail attire,” and that Linda was inclined to dress appropriately, Reed said he would classify her a “high self-monitor”—one whose consumer choices enable her to “fit in,” to adhere to the social cues and behavior one attributes to a particular event or environment. To be a high self-monitor is to possess a chameleon quality: you buy and wear what you judge to be right for the occasion. Low self-monitors aren’t as much concerned with extracting positive social feedback. They buy and wear whatever they like to a school fund-raiser—mom jeans, if the spirit so moves.

Finally, a renegade anthropologist, Grant McCracken, who has taught at MIT and the Harvard Business School, offered me this elliptical response: “The Elizabethan Lord Burleigh removed his outer robes one festive occasion, saying, ‘Lie here counselor, while I go off to dance.’ An anthropologist runs the question in reverse and asks of a woman buying a new dress, say, what self do you take up with this dress, who will you now become?”

What McCracken was getting at: the little black dress, like so many things we buy, possesses a kind of transformative power.

Our journey had just begun, and one thing was already clear, at least to me: everyone has a take on what happened in that store, and no one knows for certain. When we look for all the possible explanations for why we buy what we buy, wear what we wear, drive what we drive, dine where we dine, or furnish how we furnish, we find ourselves adrift in explanations that range from the broadly trivialized—fashion victim! shopaholic! social climber!—to the truly arcane. There are those who would see Linda as a knot of sexual hang-ups, which we’ll come to. And there are white coats in neuro labs who aren’t the least bit curious about Linda the person but seek to understand her behavior in terms of switches and wires and electrical currents begging to be technologically scanned. There’s got to be a buy switch amidst all that static and ooze, wouldn’t you think?

© 2009 Lee Eisenberg


Meet the Author

Lee Eisenberg, most recently the author of Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What (2013). The Number was a New York Times bestseller and was cited by Business Week as one of the best books of the year. Eisenberg is also the former editor in chief of Esquire. Under his stewardship the magazine won National Magazine Awards across a number of writing and design categories. He currently lives in Chicago.

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Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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JoanieGranola More than 1 year ago
When I saw this book on the "New Arrivals" table at my local B&N, I read the jacket and thought it would be an interesting and relevant read. The first few chapters were interesting enough, but then the author got into technical terms used by marketing researchers with studies, etc. and I found the book to be less interesting. So, I put it down after I got halfway through because it just didn't hold my attention. I will most likely finish this book after I read a few more interesting novels because I don't like to leave any book unfinished, no matter how uninteresting I find it. But with a title like Shoptimism and the tease that the book will reveal "why Americans will always buy" stuff, I thought it would be the authors personal experiences as a shopper and interviews with other shoppers that would fill the pages of this book. Instead, I find it's almost a technical manual for anyone in marketing and sales because the author discusses the working minds of the men who created advertising. I don't think this book is horrible; it's just not what I expected. It's well written, albeit very technical and dry.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Expected an interesting read on why people shop. What I got was a piece meal work from various authors to make Mr. Eisenberg's points. Also not interested in his political viewpoints just wanted insights. My political viewpoint does not affect the way I shop, if it did why didn't the author have it as a chapter. Overall, I have read better books. Would not recommend you wasting your dollars on this one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great explanation of why we don't have our priorities in order. Shopping has taken over our lives-this is why our young people know very little about certain holidays; All they know is to shop, buy, go into debt. We should shop for needs, not wants to keep up with others.
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ylhesq More than 1 year ago
In the era of hyper-focused, niche marketed business texts, it's refreshing to read a book like Shoptimism which provides insight that benefits a number of different readerships, particularly those on the Sell Side (the sellers of goods and their cadres of marketers, consultants and other consumer-enablers) and those on the Buy Side (consumers in their various iterations). Aspiring retailers, salesfolk looking to better understand their constituencies, consumer psychologists and wannabe Mad Men (or Mad Women) will all benefit from the book's "Consumerism 101" stroll through the mind of the American consumer and the entities that may be pressing the buttons that spin the wheels inside that mind. Individuals who want a better understanding of why they buy and what forces may be motivating that decision-making process (or perhaps to self-diagnose an alarming lack of such process) will also be well served by this book. The author's use of personal anecdotes, whether it be a recounting of his brief tenure as a Target floorwalker, a trip to the dressing room with his wife or his observations regarding his teenage son's quest for an elusive pair of Japanese sneakers, brings some real-world perspective to a subject that many consumers take for granted or spend little time analyzing. His "come along with me" perspective when delving into the nerve center of retail anthropologist/consultant Paco Underhill or exploring the seamy underbelly of the knockoff trade is effective and informative without dipping into the realm of sensationalistic "investigative journalism." Eisenberg's conversational writing style avoids the didactic but never veers into glibness. This particular writing style - peer to peer if you will - has long been his hallmark dating back to his days as a writer for and later editor in chief of Esquire magazine. This voice works very well in addressing a subject like American consumerism where I submit we could all use a bit more education. The recently-departed Sy Syms was right -- an educated consumer IS the best customer. This book will certainly move consumers closer to that status.