The anthropology of shopping

Yesterday I went shopping with my mother and my little sister in Randers (being back home for Easter and all). Both are preparing for my little sister’s big day of confirmation in May. Danish tradition bids that this coming-of-age rite is turned into a grand feast of consumerism, elevating the young teens to a whole new level of consumption: From plush toys and gaudy, childish colours to young trend and electronic gadgetry.

Of course, this transformation from nagging pre-teen to self-conscious shopping teen doesn’t happen overnight (and, I hasten to add, not all pre-teens nag – at least not all the time..). But the confirmation seems to be the grand formalisation of a new full-blown consumer. Specifically, most youngsters ask for money as presents for their confirmation party, as this puts them in the enviable position to blow all of that money in whatever way they want to come Blue Monday.

Blue Monday is the first week day after the confirmation parties, where all the newly-confirmed gather in the larger cities of Denmark, all dressed up in the latest streetwear and ready to spend money. They go browsing around town, drinking their first beers, maybe even smoking their first cigarettes and grow ever more distracted by the opposite sex.

All this still awaits my little sister (12 years younger than me) So it was with some interest I went out shopping with her to get her young trend street outfit for the big day-after-the-day. And it turns out that she’s already an extremely accomplished shopper. At age 13, she’s probably better at shopping than I’ll ever be. Where my self-confidence drops upon entering a high-street shop, knowing that I’ll be brandishing my (lack of) style in front people who sell clothes for a living, my little sis enjoys making these people jump to do her every bidding.

My mother tells me that sis and girlfriends spend hours every week after school hanging out in various clothes shops, browsing, combining various styles, discussing which pieces of clothing might look good together. They don’t buy a lot, obviously. Since they don’t have much money. But that will change soon enough.

But this made me think. I guess it’s quite the standard for young people today to spend (what I consider) inordinate amounts of time browsing and shopping. They graduate with a degree in shopping at age 13 or 14, and with those skills honed so well at that age, they can scale almost to absolutely outrageous levels of consumption.

And with professions like “personal shopper” and “home stylist” becoming more and more accepted, the culture of shopping is reaching a wholly different level that I find both intriguing and desperately frightening.

So I looked around to see if there were any anthropological studies on shopping. Sure, there’s plenty of stuff on “Material Culture” and “the Anthropology of Consumption”, but I’m more interested in the phenomenology of shopping: The general bodily experience and exploration of shopping. It is much like Walter Benjamin’s concept of the flaneur, but even closer: It is no longer window shopping, it’s entering and conquering the shops to define it in your own image.

It seems that most of the anthropology that is being done in the field of shopping is done by the money-making kind of anthropologists. The sort hired to help shops make it even more likely that people don’t merely browse but buy, too. To most of the anthropology students I know, this would be considered a bad application of anthropological methods. Take for instance this observation taken from a New Yorker article on “The Science of Shopping“:

Paco [former student of urban anthropologist William Whyte and self-proclaimed “retail-anthropologist”] is considered the originator, for example, of what is known in the trade as the butt-brush theory-or, as Paco calls it, more delicately, le facteur bousculade-which holds that the likelihood of a woman’s being converted from a browser to a buyer is inversely proportional to the likelihood of her being brushed on her behind while she’s examining merchandise. Touch-or brush or bump or jostle-a woman on the behind when she has stopped to look at an item, and she will bolt.

So, of course, Paco’s advice to shop managers is: “a women’s product that requires extensive examination should never be placed in a narrow aisle.” It’s obviously good for business, though most anthropologists, being of a more idealistic, anti-capitalistic bent, would shudder at the thought of giving such advice. It seems low, somehow.

Yet, it is turning into a full-fledged branch of anthropology: Business Anthropology. I found this very informative discussion of the matter on BBC, which describes the various aspects of the field – and obviously, not all of it is as foul sounding as the retail anthropology mentioned above.

One of my fellow anthropology students at the University of Copenhagen, Mikkel, is currently doing his fieldwork at a Danish firm hoping to be at the forefront of this new trend. Funnily enough, it sounds like he might be the only real anthropologist there – but since other professionals have no qualms about taking on the challenge of the ethnographic method, they claim the title as well.

So where was I going with all this? Oh yes: Shopping is both an art and a science nowadays. It most certainly isn’t something for the casual participant.

One thought on “The anthropology of shopping

  1. Andrei

    Very interesting post, Andreas.

    I am currently studying the Anthropology as well and I got here looking specifically for articles on the Anthropology of Shopping.

    You rank high on this in a major search engine, so kudos to you!

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