1 August 2012

It’s not news that men and women are from different planets, but do we actually know yet why women are obsessed with shopping and men are ambivalent?

Theories abound about the psychology of shopping and experts agree on two facts.  The first is that businesses use a variety of techniques designed to make consumers spend more.  Shopping has become a major leisure activity, and retailers have cashed in on this trend by becoming increasingly sophisticated (read crafty) at getting shoppers to part with their money.

In department stores, perfumes are laid out with a technique called triangular balance, which works on the theory that your eye will always be drawn to the centre of a picture.  Retailers put the largest, most expensive item, with the highest profit margin, in the middle of a shelf, and organise the other, smaller sized and less profitable pieces around it.  Once your eye has settled on this perfect bottle of perfume, it’s hard to settle for the cheaper ones.

Aisle ends are used for impulse buys – for instance retailers place chocolate bars by the tills, or umbrellas by the front doors.  Music, lights and décor are important in high fashion stores for younger women – and nothing screams ‘last year’ more than out of date music.  And have you noticed in the same stores that clothes are displayed on tables rather than racks?  This is so the clothes get messed up, and the more messed up the better.  Nothing signals popular as much as messed up clothes.  If the clothes piles are too neat, it means no one is buying them.  Go figure.

This brings me to an important piece of advice for the inexperienced shopper.  It’s commonly held wisdom that you should never shop at a supermarket on an empty stomach, and more so if you’re on a diet.  But perhaps the unwary shopper should be mindful of the fact that you should also never shop with an empty head.  Always know what you’re looking for, and don’t be led astray by those end-of-aisle, centre-of-eyeline, $29.99 bargains.  They look good at the time, but help bolster the monthly MasterCard bill to something Becky Bloomwood would be proud of.

But back to the central point of this post – why is it that women are crazy about shopping and men aren’t?  Is it that we are genetically programmed for shopping?  Modern theories link the male vs. female shopping styles to the hunter and gatherer roles. Hunters have to react fast, or their prey will run away and certainly it’s hard to keep men in shops for longer than ten minutes, unless the store sells fifty inch flat screen tvs.

Women, who traditionally protected the species by making sure that fruit and nuts were ripe and not poisonous, spend longer than men in stores, lingering over handbags, shoes, makeup and other berry-like items.  And it’s not just time they’re spending in stores. The second fact that experts agree on is that in dollar terms, women spend on average twice as much as men do on clothes, although arguably men spend more on big ticket items such as electronics and cars.

Approximately 40 million people a year visit the Mall of America in Minnesota, the largest shopping complex in the United States.  Britain doesn’t boast anything as large, but a 2010 study found that the average British woman will spend five years of her life shopping, an honorable apprenticeship our gatherer-forbears would have been proud of.

Shopping links back to ingrained behaviors from the earliest times of our evolution; keeps national economies afloat; provides exercise to the obese; gives harried married couples quality time apart; and allows the non-creative to exercise a form of creativity in what could be a sartorially homogenous world.

This brings me to the central question of this post:

Why hasn’t shopping been given the recognition it deserves and been elevated to the ranks of Olympic sport?

Surely it’s only a matter of time before it is, and I wish the IOC would hurry up and get on with it so that ordinary, overweight, unfit and un-coordinated people like me have the opportunity for glory and gold medals, rather than just sore feet, a bulging MasterCard bill, and an angry husband and/or bank manager.

I’ve been prepping for the shopping Olympics for years, even to the extent of choosing my uniform.  It consists of flat shoes, a short-ish skirt (easy to get in and out of; can pull long skirt over it; or trousers under it) and a black tee-shirt with white letters that read ‘Get out of my way, I’m shopping.’  You might think I’m being ridiculous, but given Sophie Kinsella has reportedly sold over 6 million copies of her Shopaholic novels, arguably I could find a number of women who’d agree with me and who’d certainly be keen to compete in the shopping Olympics to defend the honor of their countries.

Shopping is a highly emotive subject and the last word in the debate has to go to a friend of mine, an extremely intelligent woman who always cuts to the heart of the matter.  She was speaking with another (male) friend about the relative merits of a particular pair of shoes.  “I have to buy them,” she said. “They are desirable, but necessary.”  And on that insightful note she left us – to go shopping.

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