The Meaning of Shopping

4 Sep

In an article that started as a joke many years ago, I explored the links between the designs of shopping malls and websites.  I was going to speak about the links between the designs of museum exhibits and web sites as part of a visiting professorship in Hong Kong.  My host said that Hong Kongers weren’t really into museums; they preferred shopping.  So I took up the challenge.

As I was preparing the presentation—and realized the craziness of what I had agreed to—I decided to write out the speech word-for-word (the only time I’ve ever done that) to make sure I really had something to say.  Not only was the speech well-received, but I had an article for publication afterwards.

But I’m not going to write about that link again, because that’s a one-trick pony I’ve already ridden.

No, what makes shopping important is its role as a reflection on the local culture. My aunt and uncle, who often traveled internationally before it became fashionable, commented that they liked to visit supermarkets in the cities they visited because they often learned more about the local culture there than they did in museums and other tourist attractions.

To be honest, one only need visit a few branches of the same supermarket chain to learn that lesson.  When I lived in Atlanta, I frequented three Kroger stores, affectionately named the Kombat Kroger, Kruisy Kroger, and Kosher Kroger.  The Kosher Kroger served a large Jewish population and had a complete Kosher meat section and an expansive kosher food selection.  Because it also served families, the Kosher Kroger had huge selections of packaged breads, milk, and diapers.

The Kruisy Kroger was in the heart of Atlanta’s mid-town area, with a large gay population.  It earned its nickname because patrons would cruise one another. Serving a population of people who were primarily single or living in childless households, this Kroger had an expansive wine selection and prepared foods section, but a measly shelf of Manischewitz kosher products.

The Kombat Kroger was in the heart of a transitional neighborhood—half urban poor, half urban gentrification in process.  Someone had been murdered at that Kroger, so they posted a full time security guard at the door to raise feelings of security.  Because its target customer was less affluent than those of the other two Krogers, the merchandise selection was reduced, but instructions for using food stamps were more visible.

I re-learned the lesson of grocery stores when I was teaching at Bentley College.  I sent students to different Shaw’s markets, when it was in the process of rebranding itself from the Star Market name.  One store was in relatively well-off Arlington, recently remodeled, and featured a sumptuous display of fresh and freshly prepared foods.  The entire store had been rebranded as a Shaws.

After visiting that store, some of my students next went to the Star Market in Waltham.  The only part of the rebranding that had been completed was in the plastic bags, which all bore the Shaw’s name (and no sign of the Star name).  That store was small with narrow aisles.  The floors suffered not only from waxy yellow buildup that had been accumulating since the store was probably last remodeled in the late 1970s, but from an accumulation of dust that didn’t seem to have been swept in the past 24 hours (always a reassuring sign in a supermarket).  Merchandise selection was limited and the produce was downright unappetizing.

My students came back to class appalled.  One refused to ever shop in Shaw’s/Star again, concerned that the store had discriminated against its  lower income clientele.

Given that, what cultural insights did we glean from the shopping experiences in Europe and South American?  First, what’s on offer at the stores reflects local tastes and preferences.  If the insights gleaned from grocery stores didn’t fully make the point, the absence of Chinese food stalls in the Turkish food court and the presence of Peruvian chains in the food courts of Peruvian malls did.

Second, shopping hours say a lot about what’s important in a culture.  In Europe—and here in Quebec—stores are only open two evenings a week (Thursday and Friday).  In most European countries, stores are also closed Sundays.  In contrast, stores in Lima are open until 10 or 11 at night, seven days a week, including Christmas (though they were closed on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day). As a developing nation where a large percentage of the populace lives below the poverty line, I can certainly understand why retailers want to make effort to earn a living.  But the hours are the same in most of Canada and the US, a trend explained by an interest in serving consumers when they want to be consumed.  (The only difference is that stores close early on Sunday evenings, but even those hours have slowly and quietly expanded over the years, from a sharp closing at 5 pm to 7 pm for malls and 10 or 11 pm for some big box stores.)

Third, there’s an aspirational quality to merchandising. Merchandising was probably strongest in the developing economy of Peru and the rising economy of Turkey.  In both places, the provision of merchandise seems to communicate the message, “Announce to everyone that you’ve arrived.”   In contrast, the less meticulous merchandising observed in France suggests that they’re past that aspirational phase.

Admittedly, this theory does not explain the superb merchandising in Germany—according to many, the wealthiest country in Europe—or the lax merchandising in Spain—which, until the worldwide recession, was a country on the rise.

Fourth, shopping helps us understand our boundaries. What are our spending limits?  Do the limits we really observe match the ones we thought we would observe?  For example, if we thought we would not spend over a certain amount for an item, and find ourselves buying that item for much more, why is that?  Or is there something we did not think we needed, but when we see it at an attractive price, buy it anyway?  Conversely, is there an item we thought we really wanted but when we saw it, we chose not to buy it? Was it the price?  Did we reassess the need?  Did emotions kick in?

Fifth, globalization is bridging some differences in shopping cultures.  Certain stores are available all over, like Tommy Hilfiger, McDonald’s, the Apple Store, Zara, and Hugo Boss.  Certain brands are available all over, like Polo by Ralph Lauren, Samsonite, and Samsung.

Brands I had first noticed this winter in Europe seem to have arrived in North America, like Camper shoes and Desiqual fashions.

But last, differences continue to exist.  More similarities exist within regions rather than across them.  Stores like Ripley, Saga, and Casa y Ideas just operate in South America.  Stores like el Corte Ingles and Monoprix only operate within one or two  European countries.  National and regional borders do preserve some elements of the economy.

Some brands have different reputations in different parts of the world.  Some brands thatseem to have lost their lustre in the US still have some shine in Peru, like Jean Nate and Helena Rubinstein.

And each country seemed to have something unique about its shopping culture that other countries could not easily duplicate: el Mercado in Lima, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, and the Christmas market in Germany.

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