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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Shoptimism

There is no doubt about it: America is a nation of shoppers and ours is an economy driven more by consumption than by production. For some of us, the craziness of Black Friday is to be avoided at all cost; for others it is a contact sport they look forward to all year long. Lee Eisenberg’s Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on buying No Matter What, attempts to explain why that is.

Eisenberg divides Shoptimism into two parts, one from “The Sell Side” (Them Versus You) and one from “The Buy Side” (You Versus You). The first part focuses on the efforts retailers make to convince unwary buyers they cannot live without what the seller has to offer. It includes a history of retailing, advertising, marketing research and what, at times, seems like psychological warfare being waged upon the buyer by the seller. Eisenberg, in a past life, was executive vice president of Land’s End and he knows exactly how “They” play the game of getting cash from your pocket into theirs.

The book’s second part focuses on the “Why” and the “Who” of shopping. Why do we shop the way we do? Why do brands mean everything to some shoppers while others see avoiding popular brands as a badge of honor? How do male and female shoppers differ? Can shopping truly be an addiction or is that just an excuse some shoppers use to rationalize their spending habits? This section of the book includes chapters on “The Classic Buyer,” one that tries to get the most for his dollar and is willing to do the research needed to increase his odds of succeeding, and “The Romantic Buyer” that shops more with an impulsive heart than with a fact-filled head.

Although he uses graphs, tables, lists and illustrations for summary and clarification purposes, Eisenberg builds his case largely through the anecdotal style he uses to recount his own shopping experiences and observations. Thankfully, he also puts today’s shopping habits into historical context, explaining how we arrived at the point that President Bush would dare suggest shortly after 9-11 that the best things Americans could do for their country was to return to its shopping malls. According to Eisenberg, it was during the 1950s that America “underwent a bloodless coup that transformed us from engaged citizens into self-indulgent consumers.” In postwar America, Americans found that buying things made them happy – and American consumption has only gotten more frantic with each succeeding generation.

Some might find it easy to ridicule the shopping habits of their fellow citizens but before getting too carried away they should consider some of the things that now eat up such a large chunk of their own disposable income, expenses our grandparents never dreamed of: mobile phones, cable television, internet bills, hugely expensive printer ink, and the like. As one consultant tells Eisenberg, “The average American household spends more a year on technology-related products and services than it does on clothes, health insurance, prescription drugs or entertainment.” Consumerism has a way, in other words, of sneaking up on the best of us.

Rated at: 4.0
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