As the holiday season approaches, our thoughts turn inevitably toward the task that some of us dread and others relish— Christmas shopping. (If you've ever wandered aimlessly through a mall on Christmas Eve wondering what to buy for Aunt Edna, you're in group number one.) Shopping has become a huge part of the holiday, and indeed a big part of everyday life for America's conspicuous consumers.
In his timely new book, I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers, writer Thomas Hine takes readers on a journey through the history of shopping. Despite its whimsical title, Hine's book isn't a light-hearted look at the joys of consumerism, but a serious cultural exploration of how and why we collect things.
A writer for Philadelphia magazine and the author of four previous books, Hine recently answered questions for BookPage about shopping, self-indulgence and the meaning of holiday gift-giving.
BookPage: Why don't men enjoy shopping as much as women do?
Thomas Hine: About two thirds of women and about one third of men say they enjoy shopping. The reason women like it more, I suspect, is because they see it as a way of exercising power and responsibility. Shopping is a big part of the womanly job that emerged among the 19th century middle class of creating the circumstances of family life: what your house will look like, what your children will wear, and what everyone eats. Women have been brought up to see this as powerful. Men often see such tasks as an imposition, one that gets in the way of doing things that are real and productive.
Probably my favorite fun fact that came from my research is that if men and women are placed on treadmills, men will walk faster. But if they are placed in a mall, women walk faster. That's because she knows where she's going. She has something to achieve. He'd rather be somewhere else.
What qualities make a "good" shopper?
A good shopper exhibits the same combination we find among the gatherers of the Kalahari: clear focus combined with openness to opportunity. Shopping often involves paying attention to many things at the same time. That means not just a vast array of merchandise, but also children and other shoppers. Marketplaces have always offered the opportunity to find out what's going on in one's village or culture. Good shoppers take what they do seriously.
Why do we buy things we don't need?
Who says we don't need it? That's a serious question. Our neighbors' and relatives' extravagance is a lot easier to see than our own. The person ahead of me in line at the cash register always seems to be buying something unnecessary and ridiculous, while my purchases are absolutely necessary.
Insecurity plays a big role in shopping decisions. We are more likely to buy when we fear that, if we don't, we'll miss a great opportunity. Everyone loves a sale because it's an opportunity to consume, and at the same time feel righteous for having saved so much money. Many purchases that go unused were seen, for a moment at least, as rare opportunities, too good to miss.
Is shopping strictly a self-indulgent activity?
Occasionally, and especially when on vacation, everyone goes on a binge of self-indulgent purchasing. But most of the time, shopping is not so much a self-indulgent activity as a self-defining one. You are what you eat, what you wear, where you live, what you sit on and sleep on, and what you buy to make you feel better. For wives and mothers, and some husbands and fathers, it is also a family-defining activity, one of the ways in which we nurture those we love.
You argue that shopping hasn't destroyed the power of Christmas, but can actually be part of enhancing the spirit of the holiday. How is that possible?
Festivals involving gift exchange happen in all cultures. Gifts create and reinforce ties and obligations between people. They are a way of channeling consumption in ways that bring people together. Gift-giving to reinforce family and social ties is not an appendage to the Christmas holiday. It is the center of it.
Are you a last-minute holiday shopper yourself or the type who plans ahead?
I suppose I am a typical man in that Christmas always seems to take me by surprise and throw me into a state of acute anxiety. Studies show that women start shopping sooner than men, spend less per gift, and are satisfied with the result. One peculiarity of Christmas is that it doesn't offer a good role for the man; even in the Gospels, Joseph is a sort of by-stander.
What's the best Christmas gift anyone has ever bought you?
Socks. I can always use socks.