Addicted to shopping


July 11, 2009

Addicted to shopping

Buying stuff is the ‘heroin of human happiness’, say two new studies on the psychology of spending. Is there any way to escape?

This is a story about modern consumerism; it is being written inside a mall. From my vantage point on a wooden bench purposely designed to be uncomfortable and placed alongside a digital screen pulsing ever-changing adverts selling other outlets, other products, other ways here to spend, spend, spend, I can watch shoals of people hurrying in and out of stores honouring the creed of the turbo-consumer: live to shop.

A young woman rushes by at a semi-trot. On her shoulder is an eco tote bag bearing the slogan: “All You Need is Love.” But she evidently doesn’t subscribe to this ideology; she is laden with branded carrier bags — Mango, Urban Outfitters, New Look. What she really needs, it seems, are more shoes, skirts, scarves, belts. How often do you go clothes shopping, I ask when I catch her up. Most lunch breaks and every weekend ideally, she says. Why? She eyes me dubiously: “Because I love it.”

How did we get here? How did we get to a point where shopping became the premier leisure activity, where we gladly boarded the work-to-spend treadmill, the insatiable pursuit of “more”, which resulted in there being, for example, 121 mobile phones for every 100 people in the UK by 2008? Does it even matter? Shopping doesn’t kill anyone, it keeps the economy going and provides one in six jobs. If it makes people happy, why not leave them to it?

Well, that’s just it. Two, frankly gripping, new books argue that turbo-consumerism — the age of instant gratification and voracious appetite for “stuff” — cannot make us happy and it never will. Every time we are seduced into buying one product, another appears that is “new”, “improved”, better than the one you have.

In his book All Consuming, Neal Lawson, a political commentator and chairman of the pressure group Compass, describes turbo-consumerism as “the heroin of human happiness”, reliant on the fact that our needs are never satisfied. A consumer society can’t allow us to stop shopping and be content because then the whole system would die. “Instead it has to sell us just enough to keep us going but never enough that our wants are satisfied,” he says.

The brief high we feel is compensation for not having a richer, fuller life. Now that the recession has struck, many can’t even get the hit of compensation.

Geoffrey Miller, a professor at the University of New Mexico, uses evolutionary psychology in his book Spent to conclude that runaway consumerism “offers little more than narcissism, exhaustion and alienation”.

You may have noticed that many Michael Jackson fans who poured on to the streets last month to mourn his death immediately bought Jacko T-shirts and other memorabilia. Their response to grief was to shop. It’s understandable. For years, worldwide, shops, retail centres, giant malls have been taking over public spaces creating a mainstream monoculture. The pedestrianisation of city centres, though largely regarded as pro-citizen, is actually, say critics, primarily to maximise footfall and shoppers’ “grazing time”. This retail creep has ensured that increasingly there’s not much else to do but shop.

As Lawson says: “The more we consume the less space there is to be anything other than consumers. The space to be citizens and make decisions equally and collectively about the world around us is diminished.” It may be a free country, “but we simply have the freedom to shop”, he says. Kings as consumers, pawns as citizens.

In the Liverpool One shopping “experience”, where I am sitting, a teaser on the interactive map perhaps signals how far we have let shopping become a standalone activity. “Liverpool One shops are open until 8pm every weekday,” it says. “Why not spend a night out shopping?”

It must be said that here, a place teeming with shoppers despite the credit crunch, and punctuated by Massive Reductions! signs, people don’t look particularly disempowered or depressed. Purposeful, I suppose, but also strangely distracted, as if they do not notice the environment around them, merely the magnetic shop signs.

Recent research conducted by GfK NOP indicated that 54 per cent of people are cutting back on buying clothes. This may be so, but a lot of people here today admit to being unable to resist the sales and this is causing their visits to the shops to increase.

I speak to three women here on a trip from Dublin who say their clothes-shopping frequency has not decreased during the recession and they have no intention of it doing so. How do they afford it? “We shop more for bargains now, as you can see,” they say, indicating their Primark carriers. “There’s a lot more sales, which is great.”

Don’t you find shopping for its own sake tedious? “It gets us out of the house,” says Jackie Delaney. “We make a day of it.”

Are we over-catastrophising the consumer phenomenon? I understand the siren call of TK Maxx and how a £3 top can mend a bad day. But the question is, why does it?

Miller answers the question of why we buy from the basis of evolutionary psychology. The human body is a practical tool for reproduction and survival but it is also the advertising and packaging for our genes and our “fitness indicators”, he says. When a modern woman buys a new dress or a man a Rolex watch they are really self-marketing, saying: “Look at me, I’m attractive, successful, fertile, healthy — mate with me.” It isn’t that we are materialistic; in a marketing-dominated culture we just don’t know any other way to do it.

But here’s the thing. Miller argues that much of this is pointless. Consumerism is a poor means of self-advertising because the vast majority of people don’t notice or care what you are wearing. “The fundamental consumerist delusion,” he says, “is that branded goods are the most effective way of signalling to others our fitness.” Even in a turbo-consumer world it’s a fallacy that most people care more about the artificial products displayed by someone than their conversation, wit, affection. The material goods are more or less worthless; they have value only if the signals they give out are received and understood by others, eg, that this is a real Birkin handbag. The thing itself isn’t coveted but its power as a messenger. “Marketers understand that they are selling the sizzle not the steak,” Miller says.

By this reckoning we are not materialists at all, we are — what? — signalists? Miller says marketing actually avoids materialism because it would reduce products to mere commodities and they need to be so much more — as in public perceptions of tap and mineral water. Smartwater was advertised with a photo of a nearly nude Jennifer Aniston and was sold for 870 times the price of tap. At this historical moment, he says, marketing dominates life on Earth.

It is also a science that keeps shifting its shape. Technology has advanced to provide in-store ad screens that watch you as you watch them. Small cameras embedded in the screen read your face, feeding information about your gender and age range to a data bank, the ads changing accordingly.

Dr Vicki Rabenou, of TruMedia, in Tampa, Florida, one of the leaders in this technology, says: “Seventy per cent of shopping decisions are made in the store.” Still, many people might not welcome a supercamera scrutinising their face.

Back in Liverpool One I should clarify that this is not a covered mall but what Anna Minton in her new book, Ground Control, calls “effectively a private city within a city”, a “mall without walls”. It is effectively a new shopping centre in the heart of the city. A similar scheme is planned for Stratford City, in East London. Minton argues that this new phenomenon illustrates how public spaces are increasingly seen as a trading environment “not for the good of the city . . . but to maximise footfall”.

Sheryl Collins, 26, is returning a dress to a fashion chain. Is there something wrong with it? “No, I just got it home and changed my mind.” Then she asks if I’ll use a pseudonym in this piece (which I have) and confides: “I’ve already worn it, actually, but everyone does it.” Does what? “You wear it once then take it back for a refund.”

Lawson says that this is a symptom of the “new selfishness” fostered by turboconsumerism. “For the shopper there are no obligations to others, no responsibilities, just rights. If the consumer is king, the concept ‘because I’m worth it’ translates into a world where we are the centre of our own universe.” He adds: “Personal freedom to shop, to own, to do what you want is the guiding principle of our age.”

The good news is that this is changing. Miller argues that thousands of young people are sidestepping consumerism on Facebook and MySpace, realising that they can make friends and attract mates by blogging, using their personalities and wit.

Lawson says he believes that more people are gradually rejecting a life of competitive consumerism. A British Market Research Bureau survey in 2005 suggested that 25 per cent of British adults aged between 30 and 59 had chosen to downshift during the past ten years, earning about 40 per cent less than before. Surprisingly, perhaps, downshifters are spread across all age and social groups, although with a slightly higher proportion of As and Bs. Among the new breed of downshifters are TIREDs — Thirtysomething Independent Radical Educated Dropouts.

Great. But what about those of us who can’t afford to do this? How can we jump off the hamster wheel into what Lawson calls an “alternative hedonism”? One thing he is sure of is that turbo-consumerism got us into this global economic mess and it won’t get us out of it. “Though politicians beseech us to return to our normal shopping patterns what happened before was not normal,” Lawson says.

He advocates simple, ethical ideas — taking fewer planes, cycling more, buying less, eating more slowly to help to create a lovelier post-consumer society. “We are losing the pleasures of time and taste. We feel less alive and more like plodding robots,” he says. The essence of alternative hedonism resides in the rediscovery of play and “creates lasting desires rather than eternal disappointments”.

Miller advocates similar strategies: not buying — finding the same item you already own in the garage, borrowing from a friend, renting, buying second-hand, making it yourself, asking to get it as a gift.

He knows that human beings will never stop trying to flaunt their “fitness”, but gradually they will find better ways of doing it than materialism, such as by valuing community and neighbourly kindness.

It’s a nice idea. But here in the retail district it still seems a pipe dream. I speak to Karen and Abi staggering under the weight of their carrier bags. Will they go home now and put their feet up? “No, we’re taking these bags home in a taxi,” Abi says. “Then we’re coming back to do another hour before the shops close.”

11.7.09 19:17


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