You are what you buy
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by Kerry Hannon, Special for
Reading Shoptimism (Free Press, $26) is a bit like wandering haphazardly through a large department store with author Lee Eisenberg. Eisenberg, a former editor in chief of Esquire and past executive vice president at Lands’ End, taps into the vibe of what makes people buy and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways marketers sell to them.
Eisenberg merrily leads the reader through a swath of the retail universe, traipsing from Madison Avenue to megamalls to the enclaves of academia, where scholars study shopping behavior and brain impulses.
You drop in on a lady’s changing room at Bloomingdale’s on Chicago’s Miracle Mile. You eavesdrop on his visit with George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Loewenstein co-wrote a study that explored what parts of the brain are active when people consider whether to purchase a product. You tag along with him on a visit with Richard Holt, president of business strategies at Experian, a market research firm and one of the three major U.S. credit bureaus that keep score and issue reports on how well you pay your bills, gathering detailed lifestyle and demographic data about millions of consumers and selling the data to its clients.
Eisenberg expounds on reasons why we buy:
•We want to assert our identity (real or idealized) and express ourselves.
•We want to be part of a “tribe” of other customers who impress us as hip, rich, sophisticated or what we aspire to be.
•We buy because it is fun, sociable and diverting. It’s an escape from a boring and predictable existence.
Some of his notions, he admits, have been around for decades, particularly when it comes to our attachments to brands. “Those who contend that we are the brands we buy, and that those brands are us, began to beat that drum at a time (the 1960s) when social institutions and traditions were becoming unglued,” he writes.
“That we buy because our personalities are reflected in brands, and that brand loyalty extends membership in a tribe, are propositions now firmly fixed in the Buy zeitgeist.” Think Apple fans and Mac users with their self-satisfied smugness about the superiority of their computer choice.
Romantic vs. classic buyer
He proffers three of his own insights into how we relate to brands. First, brands connect us to others, he writes. Second, brands express our values. And finally, “Brands keep their promises — or else.”
Starbucks, for example, broke its promises to its tribe, he believes. It became a cookie-cutter chain and lost its soul, and it tested its price limits to the point it became common to hear people refer to the company as “Fourbucks.” In essence, it became “un-cool.”
Eisenberg delineates romantic buyers and classic buyers. Romantic buyers tend to buy for status and seek the unique. They buy for the social benefit of fitting in that comes from owning certain things, and generally feel the pleasure of buying.
The classic buyer, on the other hand, tends to buy because a product is technically superior and well crafted. Classic buyers are generally thrifty and place a premium on getting a good bang for the buck.
Regardless of your buying persona, “Nothing intoxicates the spirit like getting something, or the delusion that you’re getting something, for no cost at all,” Eisenberg writes.
Throughout our shopping trip with him, Eisenberg introduces us to “a motley band of shoppers, snoops, merchants, marketing gurus, scholars” and others who “claimed insight into the why, how, what, where, and when we buy, yet none connect all the dots,” he admits. And neither does he. Nor does he firmly answer his own question: Why The American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What.
But he surmises: “Our economy, our culture, and our social order are built around the Buy. For better and worse, America is, on balance, what it buys.”
In his view, there are four categories of buys worth making (if you don’t go into debt to do so).
These are ones that:
•Make you happy — a ticket to a play or concert, a trip to Paris
•Transform you — new furniture for your office, a new hairdo
•Self-Extension — an L.L.Bean tote bag, Nike Air Max sneakers
•Everlastingness — the jewelry, furniture and other material things that in time will become a daily connection from parents and grandparents, who bought them, to those who inherit them.
Kerry Hannon is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
“Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What,” by Lee Eisenberg; Free Press, 334 pages, $26.