Rat, Rational or Seething Cauldron of Desire: Designing the Shopper

[This is a draft of a column I wrote for the ACM’s interactions magazine. Publication details: interactions, Volume 18 Issue 1, January + February 2011, ACM New York, NY, USA]
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Since the 1930s, governments have largely followed the view of John Maynard Keynes that spending, not saving, drives successful economies. We have taken this charge seriously in the U.S. If Adam Smith characterized Britain as a nation of shopkeepers, the U.S. is indubitably a nation of shoppers. No other country in the world spends as much on consumer goods as America.

Whether you love it or hate it, everyone has an opinion on shopping. It’s an expression of identity. It’s the gift I give my family. It’s a chore I have to endure. It’s sport. It’s a sign of the demise of our culture, an assault on our base ethics and morality; “Stop the Shopocalypse!” entreats the performance artist Reverend Billy and his troupe, the Church of Life after Shopping.

As the memory of Santa’s season of goodwill, joy, and multifarious forms of consumption fades and I review my credit card bill, I have been reflecting on how we shop—more specifically, on how the shopping experience is designed for us, and we are in some sense designed by it. For this reverie, I am more interested in what has been dubbed “wants based” rather than “needs based” shopping, which, as evidenced by my credit card statement, clearly makes up most of my purchases.

So, yesterday I made a diary of a shopping day, noting the things and experiences that I usually take for granted, but with a view to wondering how they came to be so. With the caveat that this is not an exhaustive diary, here’s the timeline:

6:30 a.m.: Wake up.
6:45 a.m.: Pick up mail, physical. Two catalogs, an envelope of discount coupons, and an advertisement for expensive holidays masquerading as a travel magazine.
7:00 a.m.: Scan the list of emails from services, vendors, shopping-discount sites, and so on. Canon seems to think that I could make use of yet another camera. Apple thinks I will be enchanted with some new products from them.
7:30 a.m.: Shower, using a multitude of free samples sent to me by online-shopping vendors, most of which products I feel disinclined to purchase.
8:30 a.m.: Drive to work, listen to national public radio (NPR), and hear a review of a book I will likely purchase.
11:25 a.m.: Alleviate mild distraction and boredom by reviewing what is currently available on shopping sites RueLaLa and ideeli, sites that sell designer clothes and accessories. Find names of three designers who are new to me but I will look out for in future. (Thank goodness for online shopping, which means the indignity of trying on clothes in public fitting rooms is circumvented and provides idle-time shopping in 15-minute chunks when I am bored.)
5:45 p.m.: Drive to shopping mall and locate specific department store to buy a gift for a friend, navigate lights, music, perfume, and other sensory assaults.
7:00 p.m.: Drive home from work via supermarket, pick up groceries.
7:50 p.m.: Drag loads of heavy grocery bags upstairs; curse the shopping cart that masked the weight of the load I was going to have to carry later.
9:45 p.m.: Check out the Canon offers and surf the Web, reading reviews of various computer products; cave in and buy coat from RueLaLa; download infeasibly peppy music from iTunes based purely on beats per minute, and select a book for a friend from Amazon. Watch bizarre and dubious “shopping haul” videos—teenage girls sharing shopping expertise on Youtube. Am transfixed by these videos with ghoulish fascination, and note from view counts that tens of thousands of people have watched them.

Following yesterday’s diary, today I surfed the Internet, researching how some of these experiences came to be. As you will see, aside from the Internet as a channel for learning, researching, and purchasing, many of the things I encountered yesterday and have, up until now, taken for granted, carefully were designed or created with a view of what the practice of shopping does, could and indeed should look like.

The department store as we know it derived from the entrepreneurial efforts of several key figures: the Bloomingdale brothers, John and Lyman, bankrolled by profits made from sales of the wildly successful hoop skirt; Brigham Young, who in 1868 founded Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZMCI) in Salt Lake City, Utah; Marshall Field in Chicago; Alexander T. Steward in New York; and last but certainly not least, John Wanamaker, who opened the Grand Depot, a round, six-story department store in Philadelphia in 1877. The key business driver for the department store was simple: Buying wholesale meant retail costs could be kept relatively low. The key experience driver was educating people as to hitherto unknown possibilities for parting with their cash. The department store’s development from convenient goods provision to center of cultural production is wonderfully described in Jan Whitaker’s book Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class.

On a larger scale, the first shopping mall, the Country Club Plaza, was founded by the J.C. Nichols Company and opened near Kansas City, Missouri, in 1922. While the Country Club Plaza was open to the sky, the first enclosed shopping mall was opened in Edina, Minnesota (near Minneapolis), in 1956. The first shopping mall, a collection of stores, was designed to make shopping more convenient by placing lots of shops in one location. The West Edmonton Mall opened in Alberta in 1981, housing 800 stores, a hotel, an amusement park, a miniature-golf course, a church, a “water park” for sunbathing and surfing, a zoo, and a 438-foot-long lake. Park the family while you shop. Or better still, shop-play-shop.

While the shopping mall as we know it is so familiar, much of what we take for granted now was invented by Victor Gruen, an architect from Vienna. Gruen and associates designed the Northland Shopping Center in Detroit, in 1954, the Southdale Shopping Center near Minneapolis in 1956, and the Midtown Plaza in Rochester, N.Y., which opened in 1962. The innovations they designed revolutionised shopping. Innovations developed over the years: 1939, Gruen was invited to design a leather-goods store for a friend in New York. Gruen’s inspiration was to create an entrance to the store that was intriguing and enticing to the eye. Colours, lighting and reflections were used in combination with fake marble, and green corrugated glass on the ceiling to create a “customer trap” designed to lure customers into the store regardless of their initial purchase intent or their interest in the products on display (so much for the shopping list). Gruen went on to create the multi-level shopping facility with escalators between the levels and multiple entry ways from multi-level carparks. Gruen was also the genius who initiated blank wall exterior for stores; prior to that shows focused on window displays.

The shopping cart was invented by Sylvan Goldman, owner of a chain of Oklahoma City grocery stores called Standard/Piggly-Wiggly, in 1936. The original shopping cart was like all prototypes, a humble contraption. It involved two wire baskets, a folding chair and some wheels. Anyone who has wheeled themselves to the checkout, waited the allotted time, and then experienced a wave of shock at the bill followed by a panicked glance to assess what could possibly have ended up in the cart, knows how much easier it is to purchase more than you intended with a cart. The best “forcing function” to reduced purchasing is carrying the stuff you intend to buy; as your arms get wrenched from their sockets, you are more sanguine about that extra, just-in-case bottle of lotion or packet of batteries. And thank goodness for Dee Horton and Lew Hewitt’s 1954 invention, the sliding automatic door–turning handles and pushing doors while holding laden shopping bags is never a graceful exercise.

Store layout. It should be noted that stores themselves are scripted spaces, laid out to maximize our likelihood of purchasing certain items. The most famous researcher on the topic of store layout and its impact on purchasing behavior is Paco Underhill. An environmental psychologist and author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping and Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping, Underhill sets forth fairly straightforward ideas—how you structure the environment leads to different purchasing behavior, and our in-store experience is as much a part of why we purchase something as the carefully constructed shopping list.

Coupons. Introduced in 1895 as the brainchild of Asa Candler, coupons were placed in the newspaper for a free Coke from any fountain as a way of promoting the soft drink. I lost count of how many physical and digital coupons I encountered yesterday. But they are clearly part of my life, even though I use perhaps one in 100.

The mail-order catalog was created by Aaron Montgomery Ward in 1872. As I look at the two I received in my paper recycling pile and review the vendor sites I visited when surfing the Internet, I am comforted to know that many generations before me also preferred shopping from the couch to running around a mall.

Price tags, sales, in-store restaurants, money-back guarantees, and newspaper ads. All of these were created by John Wanamaker, who I think has to get the most points as creator of the contemporary shopping experience. It never occurred to me that someone actually had to invent the price tag!

As I researched these different inventions and designed experiences, I realized that I was also participating in a designed abstraction, playing my part with gusto. I have been trundling down the “purchase funnel,” a concept developed in 1898 by St. Elmo Lewis, who mapped a theoretical customer journey from the moment a brand or product attracts your attention to the moment you actually buy it. To advertisers, marketers, and merchandisers, AIDA is not an opera by Giuseppe Verdi; rather, it reflects points along the purchase funnel: attention, interest, desire, and action. Oddly, Gruen’s “customer trap”, physically luring people into stores, almost seems to have been captured in the funnel metaphor. Draw people in, and help them move from unexpected awareness to desire to intent and actual purchase.

I learned about a host of new products from the catalogs, the online surfing, the coupons, the radio, and the products on display. I find myself tenderized by the marketers and advertisers and am somewhere along the “purchase funnel” for a number of upcoming purchases. I also realize that designers of all sorts (advertisers, print layout, store layout, online stores, architects, entrepreneurs, engineers) have other abstractions that are being played out in their designs: an abstraction of me as a human, as a shopper and what motivates me to shop in the first place, what gets me peering into the funnel.

In researching this column, I also discovered that, as a shopper, that I am variously cast as a rat, as a rational person, as a seething cauldron of desire, or as a primeval Homo sapien, hell-bent on foraging for my kin. The model of me as rat derives from behaviorist psychology, emphasizing that I have been “conditioned” through reward (nice treats, Jimmy Choo shoes) and punishment (nasty things like hunger, cold, and no Jimmy Choo shoes) to respond to certain cues that drive us to shop. The second character, the rational shopper in me, is Homo economicus—rationally making choices on the basis of utility with some cost. This model is based on Lionel Robbins’s rational choice theory. While I recognize some of the behaviors, in general Homo economicus does not hang out with me. My third potential shopping mantle is a seething, bubbling cauldron of desire based on psychoanalytic theory. My ego, my superego and my id–the three-ring circus of conflicting urges that underlie whatever identity issues I may have–all held in molten, psychic, tension, stabilized momentarily by the acquisition of stuff. That is, I buy things so I can express my true inner self, whoever that might be today. Finally, the hunter-gatherer model emphasizes that we shop because it is innately human to shop—it is wired into our primal brain to rush out and hunt for things. Of all the models I read today, I confess the last leaves me most cold; it’s about as interesting as saying that shopping involves human beings.

Reflecting on my own experience of shopping, however, these theories have (at least) two problems. First, they are overly focussed a lot on individual shopping, when shopping is clearly social. Artist Barbara Krueger coined the phrase “I shop therefore I am”; I say, “We shop therefore we are.” Shopping is something we learn to do; we learn culturally how to shop and what to shop for. Pierre Bourdieu, the French philosopher, talks about “taste communities”; you are not just what you yourself consume but also what your friends consume. You Blahnik, therefore I Blahnik. The existence of the shopping-haul videos would not have shocked Bourdieu. Those young women are teaching others what to shop for, why the products matter, where to acquire them and what to do with them once they are acquired. Second, what constitutes a rational decision depends on how you scope the reasoning process. What looks entirely reasonable in the moment (tired, hungry, desperate for something for Uncle John so I don’t look like a cheapskate at Christmas), in retrospect looks daft (when he opens his package to find his 23rd pair of socks). The bounds of rational reasoning shift. A product or service I would not have looked at yesterday somehow becomes absolutely essential today. Grant McCracken, the anthropologist and commentator on contemporary culture, talks about the “Diderot effect,” invoking the philosopher Diderot, whose apartment remodel was kicked off by the receipt of a luxurious dressing gown, in the shadow of which the rest of his apartment looked shabby.

If we consider the trajectory of department store to mall to Internet, our choices of what to buy and how to “upgrade” our lives are increasing at a ridiculous pace. I wonder, what’s going to be the next revolution in the shopping experience? I also note it took me significantly less time and energy to part with my cash during the last Holiday season than it would have 20 years ago. This reflects the fact that, in tandem with the choice explosion, the time and energy taken to potentially acquire things is decreasing markedly; easy-to-use, one-click and delivery-to-door are in cahoots, encouraging the impulse buy, enticing the rat and irrational id, evolving the sloth model that has not yet been articulated fully, and muscling Homo economicus out the door. So, next time you’re shopping, online or off, think about how that experience is designed and in what ways it appeals to you the shopper–as rat, rational, id, hunter … or sloth?

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