This essay examines a conscious shift in the cultural flows of consumption practices. It explores the ways consumers are generating and sharing shopping competence as a new form of value. I argue that a shift in consumer consciousness and resulting open social discourse around shopping practices are creating a new consumption narrative in the recession. This narrative celebrates the resourceful and collective acts of people who transform modes of restriction (cutting back) into a positive social value of thrift. As people are practicing more thoughtful purchasing styles they are also more communicative with others in sharing their shopping strategies and ways of savings. Social changes are thus arising out of these adjustments in shopping behaviors. Such emergent shopping behaviors amplify a new sociability that demonstrates more appropriate ways to spend and save on commodities. This change shows that consumers are not just accepting new attitudes and behaviors towards shopping because they have to, but are doing so to be in tune with the spirit of the times.
NARRATIVES OF SHOPPING EXPERIENCES
The recent downturn in the US economy has brought into sharp relief the ways people discuss and plan out their shopping experiences. Before the recession, marketing messages flourished on trading up, from beauty products and clothes that celebrated glamorous lifestyles to luxury automobiles that depicted status symbols (Clifford and Elliot 2008). Marketers and advertisers promoted a consumption narrative that encouraged an emphasis on individualized brand enjoyment and personal fulfillment in store experience. Yet in the economic downturn, with the specter of financial gloom, consumers have quickly reduced their spending. Suddenly restricted spending and shopping is very much in vogue. Kurt Anderson of Time magazine describes this dramatic shift in our national thinking as a change from an “unfettered zeal for individual getting and spending to a rediscovery of the common good” (2009:3). A new narrative has arisen that promotes more careful and thoughtful use of money on things that matter more for people. How can we explain this rapid turn around in the cultural ethos of shopping? How are people reframing their shopping experiences to shape a new narrative?
This paper examines the shift in the cultural flows of consumption practices. Before the recession, shopping was about the enjoyment of immersing oneself in retail settings. People tended to become absorbed in the immediacy of retail exchange, buying on impulse, spending more and saving less, and largely allowing the shopping environment to influence their actions in purchase. Now that economic restriction has set in, there is a conscious shift to more pre-planning in shopping, using coupons, writing lists, organizing shopping excursions, buying less, and being more thoughtful in saving money as well as having more open discussions with others about the worth of things. These changes demonstrate more appropriate ways to spend and save on commodity items as consumers are also sharing these shopping competences with others in a new consumer consciousness. How, might we ask, did this occur?
I argue that, due to the recession, a shift in the consumer consciousness and changes in the social discourse on shopping have produced a new consumption narrative. This narrative celebrates the resourceful and collective acts of people who transform modes of restriction (cutting back) into positive social values of thrift. This change signals a different mode of consumption as it generates an alternative form of commodity valuation. Because people are practicing more thoughtful purchasing styles, they are also more communicative in sharing their shopping strategies and ways of savings with others. These emergent shopping competencies demonstrate more appropriate ways to spend and save on commodities as they amplify a new collective sociability. As such, social values perceived as frugality, scrimping, bartering and being thrifty, are recast as appropriate, even commendable competencies, and are evidenced in the stories people tell others of what and how they buy. This change shows that consumers are not just accepting new attitudes and behaviors towards shopping because they have to, but are doing so to be in tune with the spirit of the times.
SHOPPING FOR VALUE
In the fall of 2008 and spring of 2009, three separate ethnographic studies conducted by BBDO anthropologists sought to explore the particular meaning of economic value and the ways people adjusted their shopping practices in the downturn economy. Interviews were conducted in six American markets: Atlanta, Detroit, Charlotte, New Jersey, Minneapolis, and San Francisco; and among 72 middle-income, ethnically diverse men and women aged 21 to 60 years old. We interviewed individuals, couples and families in their homes on purchasing habits, and shopped with them online and in retail settings. We discovered that while people are buying less and with more constraint, they are more thoughtful in how and what they buy, and discuss more openly with others what products mean to them. We sought to explain this perceived rise in thrifty and thoughtful consumption practices that circulated among people.
PRE-RECESSION NARRATIVES OF SHOPPING
Shopping describes a very modern experience in American culture (Zukin 2004). Narratives about shopping are ways of communicating and reifying this experience to self and others. By narrative I mean that our shopping experiences help structure our thoughts, feelings, actions and consequence into a frame by which we interpret the present (Bruner 1986:142). Narratives not only make meaning out of what we do, but also provide a “science of the imagination” (Bruner 1986:141). They guide us as both “living through” and “thinking back” to make sense of what we do, as well as “wishing forward” to establish goals and models for future experience (Turner 1982:18). The former narrative of shopping for personal fulfillment and instant gratification has shifted to one of more thoughtful ways to buy things through delayed gratification. What’s curious is how the former narrative of in-store shopping enjoyment has changed to at-home thriftiness so quickly and profoundly since onset of the economic recession.
Shopping developed as a modern form of self-gratification. With the arrival of the self-service format in the 20th century, shopping greatly accelerated as a source of personal aspiration and leisure. Consumers had direct access to goods with no mediation between them. This merged the chore of “doing” shopping with the idea of unlimited choice and fun of “going” shopping (Bowlby 2001:31-32). The narrative of indulgence in shopping reached a peak with the apotheosis of the brand in the late 1980s (Malefyt 2009:202). Stores from Disney to Niketown were staged as immersive brand experiences that engaged shoppers on a personal, sensory and emotional level (Malefyt 2006, 2007; Pine and Gilmore 1998). Sensory anthropologist, David Howes remarks: “This sea-change in the sensual logic of capitalism is what lies behind the transformation in ‘values’ whereby work discipline, thrift and moderation have been replaced by self-fulfillment, impulse buying and conspicuous consumption” (Howes 2005:290). The emphasis on unlimited choice and impulse buying shaped the online format as well. Sites like Amazon anticipate our needs by depicting products similar to the item viewed and by ranking reviews of customers to further pique our interest. These additional features, writes consumer sociologist Sharon Zukin, emulate the “back and forth” considerations that people experience in stores, so that online shopping reflects our thinking and feeling in a store that never closes. “When we can shop anytime and anywhere, we wind up shopping more” (Zukin 2004:238).
But with the downturn economy, the narrative of carefree spending while shopping has been replaced by one of more thoughtful planning before shopping. As with any change in narratives, new facts emerge that contradict the credibility of the old narrative. A recession has drastically altered the contexts and social discourses of shopping. Edward Bruner notes that, “New stories arise when there is a new reality to be explained, when the social arrangements are so different that the old narrative no longer seems adequate” (Bruner 1986:151-2).
A NEW NARRATIVE: RESOURCEFULNESS AND NEGOTIATION AS GENERATIVE OF MEANING
As consumers shift from spending to saving, the narrative of impulsive purchases and instant gratification is replaced by more thoughtful planning in thrifty acts. Consumers are showing more resourcefulness at home with family and friends outside of sites of consumption, rather than seeking stores as sites in which to express free choice and define the self. Restrictive shopping practices previously considered unacceptable are now reframed as acceptable, even smart. Daniel Miller (1998) describes this difference of planned-out shopping against the impulses of individualized expenditures in his concepts of thrift and treat. Thrift is money deferred of immediate gratification (the individualized treat) in place of more thoughtful spending for a generalized other. He states that the concept of thrift “is instrumental in creating a general sense that there is some more important goal than immediate gratification, of some transcendent force or future purpose that justifies the present deferment” (Miller 1998:104). Thrift is central to our argument here in how money deferred of immediate gratification is used for the greater household good. In our research we found that restricted shopping and careful spending on things is transformed from a negative concept of reduced personal satisfaction to a sense of joy in shopping for the common good of self and others. Yet, different from Miller, the act of shopping as delayed gratification is not about some vague transcendent force or generalized sacrifice. Rather, we found shopping to be directed towards specific others within familial and social networks. People are shopping intentionally and thoughtfully for the good of self and others.
RESOURCEFULNESS FOR THE GREATER GOOD
In our studies, consumers spoke of “being smarter with their money” by planning out purchases ahead of time, using coupons, making lists and organizing shopping trips. These are the means of reifying the importance of personal relations and showing care for others through modified and structured shopping practices. Viviana Zelizer writes in The Social Meaning of Money how people are constantly creating, classifying, and organizing different kinds of money to cope with and enhance their multiple social relations (Zelizer 1997:1). Discovering resourceful ways to save money shows an extended sense of pride and care for one’s family and significant others.
Don, a 55-year-old African American computer programmer in Atlanta, was on an upward track with a software company until layoffs last fall. He has taken a new position in a firm, but at a much lower pay scale. He describes this economic change as altering his attitude towards spending as well as reprioritizing his values:
I used to go out to lunch everyday. I now have no predisposition to bringing my own food to work in a bagged lunch. I hated how it looked to other people. It is sort of a pride thing for a Black person. I wouldn’t buy Costco water either, only Desani. I just wanted to be like other guys. It used to mess with my head. But now, in reality, who cares! I will gladly take a bag lunch to work for a week if I can take my grandson to Target and buy him an Elmo doll. It means much more to me now.
Don not only rejects his previous bias against appearing stingy in bringing a bagged lunch and off-brand water to work, but has decided that whatever modicum of indignity he feels is incomparable to the joy he receives for spending on his grandson.
In another interview, Donna, a 38-year-old married woman of Italian descent with two small children in a modest New Jersey suburban home, affirms that her new mode of restricted shopping has led her to reprioritize what is important in her life.
Before, if my husband or I wanted something we used to just go out and get it. I’d say, ‘I’m going shopping,’ not with a purpose in mind, but just to go shopping. We used to act on our wants, go get it, and think nothing of it (points to the purchase of a large screen TV). Now, we really discuss necessities. We focus on what we need, not those immediate gratification things I did in the past. If I don’t have a need or a purpose to shop, I don’t go.
I’ve learned to watch my money more. It’s positive to watch how I spend my money, to plan it out if I really need or don’t need something. So now we think about it and spend on what’s really important, like for my children, for their education. It’s helped me to be more cautious.
In another example, Missy, a single mother on limited income in Detroit discusses the heightened meaning of spending money on things for her son rather than herself. In fact, she re-allocates her personal “frivolous” money into expenditures for her son.
It’s easy for me to say ‘no’ to myself, but it’s really hard for me to say ‘no’ to him. I spend more money on Jack (her son). Jack gets all the frivolous money, which is fine. When he gets school pictures, we just buy the biggest package, because I love giving pictures of my kid to people. It’s stuff that you don’t need as much, like toys. Grown up toys are things like iPods, CDs and DVDs. I don’t need that stuff. That’s entertainment dollars. But I will spend that money on Jack.
The restricted use of money, here, not only informs a refocus on expenditures for significant others over self indulgent purposes, but also indicates a different consumption experience that alters the meaning of things bought. Missy sacrifices spending “frivolous” money on herself for photographs of her son that she deems more meaningful. She demonstrates a different use of restricted money and holds a deeper value for things bought with that money, transforming what otherwise would be money spent on temporal and non-lasting value (entertainment) for something she considers more memorable and meaningful (photographs of her son).
For Crystal, a single mother of two children in Minneapolis, showing resourcefulness means renting movies from the library instead of the video store since they are free, using Bounce dryer sheets twice instead of once, buying generic paper towels, using water pitchers and filters instead of buying cases of water. She, too, has taken a pay cut to remain employed. But rather than feeling bitter about it, she claims that money restrictions have made her more thoughtful about her life.
I try to keep a positive outlook and plan on a shorter-term basis. My family becomes a focus and priority. My money outlook has changed in the past year. You always think about these things, but recently I stepped back to appreciate things going forward, making the right decisions, and being aware of our health.
The idea of spending more thoughtfully on self, family and others is also shared in groups as social currency. Again, Donna, the New Jersey mother of two, relates her experience of joining a mothers’ group to informally discuss their situations, commiserate with others, and share helpful ideas on coping with limited money. She claims to have learned resourceful ways, not only to save money, but also that bring her closer to her husband:
I recently joined a mothers’ group. There are a variety of moms, some who just lost their jobs. We meet and talk about all sorts of things, like not going shopping as much and not going out to dinner like we used to. It gets depressing to stay home all the time. One woman discussed an idea about having that feeling that you’ve gone out to dinner, to get away for a while. You wait till the kids go to bed. Then you and your husband cook something totally new. You put out wine. Make it more of a date night. It’s fun and exciting because you are cooking and eating together. That’s one way my moms’ group gives me ideas to do something to make my doldrum life feel different. But it’s not having to spend money to do it–and you feel better.
These examples reveal how money earmarked for saving and spent for others is more highly valued than spending on individual pursuits. This suggests that money earmarked for saving assumes a socialized quality for a greater good. Saving money through thrifty acts not only downplays impulsive shopping and individualized acts of consumption, but also generates a new respect and source of pride in thoughtful shopping for others.
SHARING THE “THE DEAL” IN HARD TIMES
Another dimension of resourcefulness in saving money is found in the stories people tell that celebrate “the deal.” Saving money lives as a narrative for sharing with others. Getting a deal may be a completed act, but the retelling of it activates a discursive process that can be retold over time. People express pride and satisfaction in retelling stories of saving money to others. For some the story evokes a sense of competence and skill of self-ability; for others it shows they are smart and thrifty shoppers for their families. Saving money then becomes a self-expressive tool that enables better storytelling around consumption than other shopping behaviors. Stories of how one shops and the way one acquires items become lessons learned that are passed on to others.
Getting a deal makes me want to tell others. Like the time I got a $100 Donna Karan purse for $29. I kept watching it at Marshall’s, and hung it at the back of the rack, and waited until it came down. I kept returning and putting it in the back, and one day they reduced the price.
As anthropologist Melissa Fisher found in one study for BBDO, people are especially proud of the amount saved when finding and buying an item for less, so that the item purchased becomes secondary to the actual savings. This means personal value is linked to people’s ability to save on a given item or set of items because it manifests values of being a smart, savvy shopper. Sociologist Sharon Zukin explains, “Shopping is not only–nor primarily–an activity of acquiring goods: it is a social encounter, a research operation, and both a moral and an aesthetic experience of acquiring values” (Zukin 2004:61). The importance of telling the deal, of money saved, is especially amplified in stressful times. The depressed economy means that the deal you got gives back, not only as money saved, but of a better sense of self. The sense of getting something back counts for more, since money spent is transformed into feelings of something gained for self or for others. Daniel Miller (1998:68) calls this transformation a “totalizing ritual,” where the act of expenditure in shopping is transformed into a feeling of saving that works toward some greater good. Importantly, this discourse reframes former notions of “stinginess” into a joy of competence, since “getting something back” shows a resourceful strategy for living in hard times.
For American consumers, getting a deal shows pride, skill, smartness and other values that contradict the free flow of money. Still, open discussions among couples and families around money and shopping are a frequent source of debate over what constitutes “real” needs. Donna, again, relates this tension in buying a particular brand for her husband:
There are lots of discussions and sometimes quarrels over what we really need. My husband insists on Dove soap, even though I find that the store brand is just as good. But I get it for him because he gets upset if I don’t.
Various ways to save money evoke discussions on household expenditures and brings into circulation personal differences in ideology and values. Zelizer writes that money earmarked for different household uses, whether for food, rent, school, or other funds is often contested. “Conflicts emerged over arrangements, as family members struggle over how to define, allocate, and regulate their monies” (Zelizer 1997:202). As I detail below, this source of tension over money and spending is resolved in the ways shopping is redefined for the greater good.
In a downturn economy, this paper has shown that ways of spending and saving money carry heightened meaning and social value for people that are subjectively experienced and produced. Zelizer (1997) in her discussion on the social meaning of money claims that money is not simply a flat, colorless and disinterested form of commodity exchange. Rather, money earmarked for family purposes and personal uses, such as for pin money, utility bills, charity, “mad” money and so forth, becomes loaded with personal meaning and values. Emotional value is attributed to money depending on the perceived worth and planned interactions of the social relations it signifies.
What is interesting is when we examine the emotional meaning of money at work in the recession. Spending carefully and thoughtfully in a restricted economy has come to signal the positive values of community. Restricted money and emergent shopping competencies that demonstrate thrift are used to imagine and shape close human networks such as families, couples and friends. Values of thoughtfulness and concern for other are expressed through various acts of saving and spending, and signify what a social group, such as being a family or having friends, means to people. These ideologies and practices of thrift and resourcefulness around money help define and enhance human relations through sharing competencies as well as offering practical resources for living in a downturn economy. In this way, the issue of dealing with reduced money—a reality for many people today—is transformed from a negative value of “being without,” into a positive virtue of “working together.” As such, styles of shopping and saving have come to embody socialized values (see also Bowlby 2001; Miller 1997, 1998; Zukin 2004). Shopping for pleasure and for immediate gratification is now considered distasteful because it is deemed too individualistic and self-centered. Whereas thoughtful planning and delayed gratification of purchases is considered more appropriate, since it is seen to work for a common good. We might ask how restricted spending has come to signal virtues of collective identity.
RESTRICTED MONEY AND BOUNDARIES OF COMMUNITY IN ACTION
The notion of creating community through “buying for others” in shopping is a cultural construct that was frequently referenced by people in our studies. Shopping and spending practices are one way that identity is expressed and affirmed (Bowlby 2001; Miller 1998; Zukin 2004). For Americans, notions of collective and individual identity strongly co-exist, often switching from one pole to the other, as Alexis de Tocqueville (2002) first noted over 150 years ago. It appears that after a recent spate of extreme individualism exemplified by hyper-consumption, there is now a return to more restrained spending that coincides with an aspired shift towards collective identity. This is witnessed in the rise of more thoughtful and resourceful shopping and spending practices on self and others. Communities are imagined, Benedict Anderson notes, not by their purported falsity or genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined (Anderson 1983:6). Today, thoughtful and thrifty shopping styles indicate a desire for community.
Ideas of community, nevertheless, oscillate between an imagined ideal and pragmatic reality, with conflicts to sort out (Anderson 1983, Cohen 1985). Miller et al. (1998) revealed this tension in their example of shopping mall destinations. People may hate shopping as an actual family unit, yet are drawn to places and stores that are devoted to family shopping (1998:17). The economic downturn today reveals this tension between ideal and reality by a change in attitudes of what shopping means and the ways people shop and spend money. It enacts a tension between community values and individual desires within a framework of restricted limits.
As I have argued, in a downturn economy thoughtful spending for a collective good assumes positive communal values, while spending impulsively on individual pursuits is viewed in negative self-serving terms. Lave shows this similar struggle between individual and collective identity in her study of American families and money management. Lave found that a paycheck inextricably belongs to the family member who earned it. Yet once money is associated with family, it must be transformed into collective property, since money within the family is generally assumed to express and create solidarity for the collective good (Lave 1988:134). People in her study resorted to various strategies such as splitting family money for paying collective expenses like rent, utility bills and so forth, while keeping individual checking accounts and “mad money” for personal splurges. In another example, Mary Douglas, in her study of economic systems of exchange (Douglas 1967) associates the flow of unrestricted money with individual endeavors, and restricted money with collective values: “As I see it, money in its nature is essentially an instrument of freedom… Money starts as a set of open possibilities of acquisition…It is in the nature of money to flow freely, to be like water, to permeate. But by their nature coupons [restricted money] represent closed doors, rational order, for they express society’s overriding purposes which curb the drive of individuals” (Douglas 1967:126-7). This distinction between money flowing freely for individualized purposes and restricted money rationalized for collective purposes, indicates two different monetary values that highlight collective versus individual dynamics of spending and saving today. Money management and spending practices not only reflect conflicts between individual and collective interests, but the economic recession has put increased pressure on individuals to spend more on collective purchases over their own personal desires. Individualized spending in the recession has come to stand for selfish desires against spending for a common good.
In this sense, restricted money has come to represent a new boundary marker that identifies community and its aspirational values. In The Symbolic Construction of Community (1985), Anthony Cohen shows how boundaries help define the group because boundaries are a source for social interaction. Boundaries are where the idea and practice of community is defined. In our ethnographic studies, notions of restricted money quickly became a source for interaction and contestation within families, as well as a source for discussion, asking advice, and demonstrating pride, among friends, social groups and local affiliates: “The consciousness of community is encapsulated in perceptions of its boundaries; boundaries which are themselves constituted by people in interaction (Cohen 1985:13). Restricted money and thoughtful spending thus is shown to be a source for generating communal narratives and competencies through evoked discourses, displays, and practices among various networks of people. Moreover, its material markers, such as shopping lists, coupons, flyers and sale items, represent the tangible and “moral” guideposts that hold people to those values while shopping. In this way, the social actions such as thrift shopping and hunting for bargains, and using the physical markers of shopping lists, coupons and sale pamphlets, reify the positive values of community and of working towards a collective whole. These actions importantly help transform what previously was perceived as restricting one’s freedom and choice as an individual, into guided collective efforts that work for a greater good. Thus, money earmarked for saving and spent thoughtfully on families and friends in a recession has the effect of arraying the socialized, even moral components of the group, modifying acts of consumption for purposes and in ways that are perceived as ethically responsible for a greater good.
Restricted money and the narratives of shoppers reified in consumption then evidence a framework for a new social consciousness—one that represents money that is thought about, planned and discussed among others for a perceived greater good. Consumer competencies that demonstrate resourceful and clever use of restricted money live on in the social interactions with others as well as in the stories they tell of “getting a deal.” Such practices evidence boundary-work in action as they also highlight socialized skills in working towards purposeful ends.
The shift in narrative, from in-store impulse to at-home sociability has shown not only to redefine what shopping means today, but perhaps reveals an emergent cultural ethos and new practice of consumption—one that illuminates one’s skills, cleverness and forethought in signifying the greater value of people, relative to the things we buy. Generating new shopping and saving practices that centralize the resourceful self and communal others in pre and post-consumption might also re-shape the meaning of aspirations. Competencies of demonstrating consumer resourcefulness, shopping skills, and buying for others may reflect a new consumerism that prioritizes the communal self over individualistic ways, and importantly helps create and sustain supportive relations in difficult times. Perhaps, too, this framework only functions within the constraints of the current economic recession, and upon lifting such restriction, spending will once again return to individualistic self-centered pursuits. Yet for now, we can approach an understanding of how spending wisely and saving money are shared competencies that promote a feeling of community-in-action. Restricted money and careful spending, rather than discouraging people not to enjoy shopping, appears to bring together feelings of community, joy and of shopping that work towards a greater good.
Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings 2009, pp. 209–220. © American Anthropological Association, some rights reserved.
The author acknowledges Maryann McCabe and Melissa Fisher for earlier research contributions to these studies.
Timothy de Waal Malefyt is Vice President, Director of Cultural Discoveries at BBDO Worldwide advertising in NYC, and leads an in-agency ethnographic practice. He also teaches advertising, design research methods, and consumerism and shopping as an adjunct professor at Parsons (New School for Design). Malefyt holds a PhD in anthropology from Brown University. Malefyt is co-editor of Advertising Cultures (2003), has written numerous scholarly and trade publications, and is often quoted in popular media such as Business Week, The New York Times, TimeOut Magazine.
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