Q+A – Sharon Zukin

Why is shopping such a compelling experience?

We shop not just because we must, but because it speaks to our inner dreams. Shopping has made abundance a novelty and novelty abundant. These are two of the greatest pleasures in a rich society-newness and plenty.

Shopping is creative. We are not simply mindless dupes buying what we see in commercials or craving what our neighbors have. But most of us today don’t make things. We are not designers, or artists, or craftspeople, so we create our lives when we go to a store.

Your book shows how shopping has changed over the last century or so, emphasizing the past 25 years. Tell me about the invention of “lifestyle.”

Market researchers developed the idea of lifestyle in the 1960s. These researchers saw that the old idea of social class no longer captured the different ways people shop. With so many cultural changes occurring at the time-feminism, civil rights, global youth movements-market researchers tried to come up with new ways to classify consumers.

They adapted the idea of lifestyle from books like David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, a sociology classic from the early ’50s. Lifestyle is determined not only by income, but by education, profession, generation, cultural background, and various behaviors and belief systems. Status has become more important than class, and status is expressed through the objects we buy.

“Branding” is another term that has changed the way things are bought and sold, especially in recent decades.

Although branding originated in the late 19th century with products like Quaker Oats and Kellogg’s Cereal, it renewed its role in the 1970s and ’80s. Building on the new focus on lifestyle, market researchers began matching the concept of a consumer’s identity with the concept of the brand. Expressing a brand is a game of mirrors: The identity of the desired consumer is mirrored in the identity of the products and the store.

Some stores, like Bloomingdale’s, had been conscious of having a clear identity since the ’50s. But they didn’t call it branding. In the ’70s, department stores faced competition from small boutiques on the one hand and discounters like Wal-Mart on the other. They started to focus on store identity. Then, in the ’80s, consumer product companies began feeling the pressure, too. Companies like Procter & Gamble began to popularize their brand names and the whole idea of branding.

Manufacturers, stores, and designers all became concerned with branding. Ralph Lauren became his own brand. The Gap, under the direction of former CEO Mickey Drexler, used the store’s name as an umbrella label for all the products there. This was the first time a retail store was branded. Then, we started to realize that L.L. Bean was also a brand, along with lots of others. The ultimate success was to lodge the brand into people’s lifestyle choices.

The obsession with branding can lead to a chilling sameness. Your book chronicles the rather sad tale of Brooks Brothers.

It’s a shame that companies feel they must surrender their unique identities in order to sell to a younger, hipper consumer. Brooks Brothers has ended up looking just like Banana Republic-and all the other little republics along the avenue. All the “contemporary clothing stores” have become the same, and they have all fallen behind the times. They have the same huge plateglass windows, the same pale wood and stainless steel, the same natural light pouring in the windows, and the same T-shirts piled up on counters, in bright colors, like gumdrops in a candy store. Brooks Brothers has survived longer than any other store; it was founded over 100 years ago. It has changed its identity in order to survive, but it remains to be seen if there is room in the marketplace for all this sameness.

Makers like American Apparel are appealing to the values of the No Logo generation, kids who are not so sure that The Gap and Banana Republic represent their identity. Will this attitude take on a bigger role?

Shopping represents ethical choices-not only big environmental issues, but also choices between small, local stores and mammoth chains, or between buying jeans made in a heinous sweatshop or jeans made in a sweatshop under certified conditions. These ethical choices are more difficult than ever before, even as we become more aware of them. Everything we buy is becoming a global product, with outsourced components. We know that the affordable products we buy are costing us jobs in the U.S.

You describe the store as a social space, where people come to “be with the brand.” What about the social space of the Internet?

When we shop online, we are in the physical space of home or work. It is hard to create a branded space and experience on the Web, where technology, navigation, flat images, and sometimes sound are the designer’s only resources.

EBay has provided a powerful new paradigm for shopping, however, by transforming shoppers into sellers. This can be transgressive, taking power away from professional sellers, and it can be creative. Selling can be financially beneficial to people who used to only shop. On the other hand, when the shopper becomes a seller, his or her critical distance from consumer society evaporates. People become addicted as both shoppers and sellers.

A big part of your story is the rise and fall of department stores in the 20th century. With companies like The Gap now hitting hard times, what do you think is next?

Sellers will have to keep slicing the cake-or the eyeball, as Bunuel might have had it-in different ways. Multistoried stores will have a difficult time surviving. Even New York has become suburbanized in this way. I see a burst of more specialty stores-one-story spaces that offer a smaller assortment of goods. I see the continued concentration of small specialty stores in big cities, and the unstoppable growth of Wal-Mart and the big-box discounters in the suburbs, but I also see shoppers seeking out farmers’ markets and flea markets and other alternative ways to shop.

Ellen Lupton is a curator at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, and director of the graphic design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art.

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