We’re buying more but loving it less
Back in the day, when we used to take our spears out and go find some large mammals to kill, we didn’t just come back with meat. We came back with information. Info that made the next hunt safer, easier, more productive. Info that turned into anecdotes, and the best anecdotes lived way beyond the last of the charred flesh.
Back in the day, when we used shells to trade, we weren’t just trading things. We were trading new materials, techniques and ideas about other places. Trade brought us together and took humans around the world. And as we traded stuff, we created and traded stories.
From bazaars to fayres to bodegas, shopping has always thrown off tales and characters: The Old Curiosity Shop, Au Bonheur des Dames, the flower shop at the beginning of Mrs Dalloway, Ollivander’s wand shop in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The King’s Road was instrumental in welcoming in — and equipping — the Swinging Sixties. The department store used to be where romance, intrigue, transformation occurred — think Big, Elf, Pretty Woman, Jackie Brown, Superbad — not where mannequins went to die.
And while we have often trivialized the role of shopping, trust a psychologist to see the real meaning behind our (trans)actions. As April Lane-Benson, pHD puts it: “Whether for a plant, a pair of pumps, or a political candidate, shopping is a way we search for ourselves and our place in the world.” Makes it sound like a valuable quest.
Then the Internet. We moved from window shopping to a different sized glass: our screens. The interface arrived. And while the Internet has made it easier and faster and cheaper to get more of anything you want, it has not been kind to shopping. The ease and frequency of transactions — where anything is a swipe or two away and before you know it, tossed outside your door — diminishes the importance of any individual purchase. Our once rich experiences appear thin, creating an insatiable appetite for the infinite stuff.
The Internet is unattended, so there is no-one to see how much or how often we shop. Left to our own devices, we pile it up… and return a good portion of what we order. A 2019 study by Big Commerce reported that online return rates in the US are over 30 percent. And Gen Z is two times more likely than Millennials and Gen X, and six times more likely than Boomers, to order multiple items with the intention of making returns. When things arrive and disappear without friction we become careless.
The interface doesn’t give much in the way of story, unless it’s those heartbreaking pictures of “online shopping fails”. The chasm between hope and reality.
What has happened: we think we are shopping but we are just buying. Shopping has been diminished; shrunken from a rich and enjoyable process that included anticipation, preparation, discovery, surprise, relief, banter, pride, and often a great tale at the end of it. Shrunken to a transact-deliver-return loop that means we continue to desire the emotion of shopping but are continually frustrated — while never satiated — by the behavior of buying.
The annual Black Friday battles show what happens when the expectations of frictionless, immediate gratification — and savings! — meet the inconvenient physical reality of other shoppers all after the same bargains.
In Psychology Today, Kruger and Byker suggest that “modern shopping behaviors are an adaptation of our species ancestral hunting and gathering skills”. This romantic interpretation suggests a level of collaboration that is rarely seen in the annual free-for-all, fueled by individual desire rather than communal needs.
There’s a British informal use of the verb “to shop”. It means to betray. It means to put in prison. Shopping has been blindsided and locked within flat glass boxes. It’s had the life sucked out of it.
And while I said there’s no-one to see how much we shop, we are, of course, always being watched. Personalization is the mechanization of personality, it’s the trick that trackers and algorithms play. They pretend they know and understand you, but really, they just remember you, in order to nudge you towards your next purchase.
This is the wrong kind of attention. Where a few past actions are used as rudimentary steers as to our future needs. Which is why you get a slew of ads for some damn thing you already bought. It’s why your Instagram feed seems like it’s always talking to a distorted view of you, one that gets the surface right but misses the soul.
How do we move from our attention economy — where our attention is drawn to an ever increasing blur of things some algorithm thinks we want — to an intention economy, where someone actually understands what we need?
There are signs that interface companies are trying to bring a little more texture and humanity back to shopping. Curated recently raised nearly $27.5m in funding for its platform that matches shoppers with experts. Curated suggests that not all purchases should be solitary and immediate. Sometimes it helps to speak to someone. And in a world of same day delivery, because Curated’s experts are human, and now always immediately available, Curated has introduced a welcome pause, which in turn allows for anticipation and reflection.
In the same month, The Yes, founded by retail veteran Julie Bornstein, raised $30 million. Bornstein’s resume includes Nordstrom, Starbucks, Urban Outfitters and Sephora, so she knows her shopping. She explains The Yes mission simply: “to address the issue of overwhelm in shopping today”.
These feel like less personalized, more personable shopping spaces. Where we’re not trying to repeat or imitate an analogue experience on the interface, but where people are still the interactive element. Because if people aren’t involved, you only have a transaction, not an interaction. Can they help bring the story of shopping back to life?