Shopping: the Pleasures and Profits

Shopping as an activity has a history. This history reflects social trends and social changes – the usual complex mix of economic and cultural ones. As the activity changes, so do the sites, buildings and locations associated with shopping – from inner-city markets to shopping malls, for example. The trick, as always, is to try and interpret these changes:

1. Is there some underlying trend from functional shopping to shopping as a cultural activity, from markets to malls, or is it a picture of uneven development and complexity that defies any general models?
2. Can any trends be best described as changes in an underlying economic system that is still really capitalism (from industrial to consumer capitalism, from classic to late capitalism), or should we begin thinking in terms of one of the ‘posts’ – postmodernism, postfordism, ‘post-cultures’ – or even one of the halfway houses like ‘late modernity’, perhaps?
3. Are shoppers the victims of consumer capitalism seduced by the dubious pleasures of the centres and malls into realising the capital of the manufacturers and retailers, or is shopping a genuine meaning-oriented activity?

Now I know I mustn’t hijack the agenda and witter on too much about these theoretical matters, so I’ll begin with some modest exposition.


I am going to summarise the history of shopping development in one large city in the UK – Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Tyne and Wear Metropolitan County (as it was known in the 1980s), summarising the account by Davies in Dawson and Dennis-Lord (1985). I do not know if this is a typical history, if indeed there is such a thing, but it will help us grasp some points. 
1. Newcastle-upon-Tyne and environs (the ‘metropolitan county') is a city in the industrial North East of England that used to specialise in heavy traditional industries like coal mining, steel and shipbuilding, but these have declined dramatically in the UK in the last 15--20 years, leading to those favourite characteristics of ‘New Times’ writers, like the decline of organised manual labour, new middle-class affluence, the growth of service industries, suburbanisation. One famous feature in particular has been a substantial redevelopment combining a new light railway transport system, rebuilt sports and athletics stadia, and a huge retail shopping centre – the Gateshead Metrocentre.
2. City planners had attempted to develop retail outlets before, Davies tells us – first local precincts, based on existing street patterns, then specially enclosed centres and finally interconnected malls with ‘attractor stores’ to encourage developments. This had been partially successful in promoting city growth as intended. Later phases included suburban developments, some funded privately, some by local government, built around the new ‘superstores’ as anchors and attractors. New local administrative bodies (like metropolitan counties) helped consolidate and plan these developments for the whole region, which eliminated overlap and competition, and also helped overcome some local residents’ discontent at the constant upheavals (and at a famous scandal involving corrupt links between a prominent architect and developer, and a powerful local politician). The large interconnected developments mentioned above were the final result.
3. We can see in this history a growing realisation of the value of shopping as an activity in its own right, capable of generating economic growth or reversing economic and population decline, offering an outlet for the new working groups entering the labour market (especially women) as traditional labour declines, and playing a major part in whole redevelopment plans based on transport and leisure.

Featherstone (1991) uses the Gateshead Metrocentre as an example of ‘postmodernization’, which in this case involves the redevelopment and gentrification of inner cities. Themed and simulated environments, financed by local and global capital, act as attractors to service industries and the people who work in them, services grow up to cater for these new gentry, and the whole area rises in value – ‘cultural capital’ serves to generate finance and mercantile capital (see Zukin 1990).Of course, the petit-bourgeoisie benefit most – artists, intellectuals, professionals, ‘yuppies’ – who settle in these areas, often with some security devices to protect them from the original inhabitants. 

For marxists, this would indicate that the old class struggle as before is still driving these events, but there are problems: the events also indicate a growing independence and flexibility of culture in our societies, offering new pleasures which are not confined only to dominant groups. Indeed, it would not make economic sense even to aim to benefit just the petit-bourgeoisie. Shopping is an activity that offers genuine pleasures to a wide range of people, and, indeed, must do so for economic success. At the very least, the activity must be ‘open’ enough to permit a wide range of people to find pleasure in it (to borrow a point made by Fiske (1987) about commercial television.

As with other areas (like heritage (see file) or Disney (see another file)), we must turn to the issue of pleasure to explain the developments. Shopping has turned from a functional activity into a pleasurable one, associated with culture and lifestyle and  with the general ‘aestheticisation’ and playfulness of life (these matters are often discussed under the broader heading of ‘consumerism’, of course) 

Such pleasures have been ‘added’, we might begin to think, to the business of buying goods. As is conventional, we can consider this from the point of view of the producers and the consumers.

1. Producers add meanings and values by design, of course. Gardner and Shepherd (1989), for example, chart the rise of the design business in retail, which has grown, they claim, by 300% in the fifteen years before their book. Designers have grown from being advisors to manufacturers and retailers to becoming the dominant force in retail, able to control manufacturers and persuade retailers to undertake frequent expensive transformations of their premises. This designer-generated restlessness and future orientation, this need to cater for the needs of a fickle public (and to create these needs too) has been a major concrete factor in the move towards small-batch, networked production of consumer goods that the ‘New Times’ theorists and others have discussed  (see file) 
2. A number of techniques and developments are charted by Gardner and Shepherd. The development of the distinctive generational look of ‘youth’, for example,  began in the 1960s, and still provides a certain restlessness as each generation wants to look different from their predecessors. Thus exotic retail interiors of places like Biba in the 1960s gives way to the uncluttered simple look of Conran and Habitat, and then to the unspecified ‘concept’of Next (which, incidentally, was only able to pursue such flexibility following the reduction of stocks and the emergence of ‘just-in -time’ regimes as in  postfordism ). Segmentation also appears as the category of ‘youth’ itself splits into fragments (some based on social class). Later, ‘niche’ stores take this to extremes, selling only specialised ‘impulse buy’ items like ties (in Tie Rack), or knickers (in Knicker Box). The peak of the design industry comes with the conversion of the big established chain stores to ‘design’ as a key factor. These stores had always had brand names and their own designs, say Gardner and Shepherd, but in the 1980s they began to go in for massive redesigns of the premises, at least in the London showpieces – Debenhams in Oxford Street was redesigned as a galleria, others offered themed departments, stores turned in to ‘consumer pleasure domes’ in a style described as ‘retail theatre’ (p.87).

3. We are but a short step from the themed shopping mall, of course. These have also sprouted all over the place in recent years. We can specify the key ingredients – major attractor stores, adequate transport, additional pleasures via some themes. These themes are often based on popular elements in leisure pursuits, of course - heritage and nostalgia (what Gottdiener (1995) calls ‘Ye Olde Kitsch’), holidays (Lehtonen and Mäenpää in Falk and Campbell (1997) point out the similarities with tourism), cosmopolitan cities, hi-tech, nature, exotic locations – and are embodied in safe, pedestrianised, modern buildings often with air conditioning and security systems.

What about the shoppers themselves? Are they passive victims of the designers’ guile, lulled into a pleasurable mood so as to convince them to buy goods they don’t really need? Perhaps so, but  there are genuine pleasures on offer too, it seems.

1. Fiske’s (1989) piece on shopping takes the familiar line that shoppers are able to resist the official intentions of the designers and impose their own, often contrary meanings. The young and homeless can invade the mall, for example, and engage in a kind of cultural politics via symbolic contests with the security guards and the affronted respectable shoppers. Or people can walk around and try clothes on, but not actually buy anything – taking the pleasures but not paying the price, so to speak.

2. Morris’s account (in During (1993) is a different one, based on trying to explain the less politicised pleasures of malls as places to visit (although the piece is written in a spirit of showing that women shoppers are not mugs). Morris is one of the sharpest cultural analysts and commentators in the business, and she really likes some malls at least. To borrow an idea from DeCerteau’s piece on walking in the city, Morris argues that malls can occupy a place in local narratives of family reunions, or revisits to home towns, for example. I think myself that the elements of futuristic fantasy can be important too, much as in clubbing (I read) or in visiting Universal Studios theme parks.

3. Gottdiener’s account (1995) offers perhaps the best single account that tries to relate the economic functions of the mall to the pleasures on offer to the consumers and visitors. Shopping malls arise as part of the movement of ‘deconcentration’ of cities – city centres lose their functions which are dispersed into nearby (or even global) smaller locations instead. Yet shopping malls also offer an image of city centre life which has been lost, the centre as a public space, a safe space, one devoted to play and pleasure. This constructed or simulated city space contrast strongly with real cities outside, which are unsafe, not public, and not playful any longer (meanings work by deploying these contrasts, according to the framework Gottdiener is using). The very design of (American) malls emphasises this contrast, with their blank external walls and their inward-looking orientation. Meanings are also complemented, so to speak, by images provided by mass media encountered well before entry to the mall, providing visitors with a stock of intertextual meanings they can ‘recognise’ once they enter (and there is a certain convergence between malls too, as designers try out already successful themes in new ones). This intertextuality allows a certain individuality, of course, rather than a tightly closed and controlled image of the visitor (although, as all the commentators note, there are security guards able to police or expel anyone with particularly undesirable identities). We have the basis for the main ingredients of safe pleasure here – nostalgia (including visions of restored cities in the future) and recognition. Indeed, Gottdiener argues, very elegantly, that the mall allows us to become, for a while, the ‘ideal self’ of modern capitalism – the playful consumer and community member with a public life again, but this time, a public life structured around insistent economic imperatives. As this ideal self becomes less and less capable of being realised in the ‘real world’, so simulated ‘themed’ environments which permit it to appear become more attractive - ‘the virtual self of the "amusement society", created and reproduced by the media and advertising…exists alone and unfulfilled until it enters the mall’ (p. 97).

4. Lehtonen and Mäenpää (in Falk and Campbell 1997) follow what looks like a very similar analysis in their account of the biggest mall in Scandinavia – the East Centre Mall near Helsinki. This mall offers a sanitised version of Helsinki city centre (and also takes on undertones of the popular tourist sea cruises), and a chance to recreate a playful sociability in its main thoroughfares. The visitors interviewed by Lehtonen and  Mäenpää seem to be able to reproduce many of the pleasures of city tourism, including flâneurie  (see file on cities) , managing that mixture of engagement and detachment, the pleasures of being able to observe things without the annoying mediations of shop assistants, and to manage shopping and sightseeing and periodic withdrawals to eat or be entertained by street performers. The mall helps punctuate people’s lives, as a kind of half-way house between work and home, or day and evening. There are other pleasures too, those of managing familiarity and strangeness, as in tourism, and, above all, of ‘playful trial and anticipatory longing’ (p.164). The whole tone of the account is more active, so to speak, based on the ability of visitors to fantasise for themselves. They look like the docile virtual citizens of Gottdiener’s account, but Lehtonen and Mäenpää suggest this may be a mask donned by skilful players. Fantasy may perhaps escape even the controls of advanced capitalism: ‘In the playful street sociability, in the freedom and looseness of its anonymity and in the touristic disengagement from everyday life, can be detected  [a]…trance-like aspiration reaching out from the demanding self and towards other people’ (p. 164).

5. Now see my notes on a study by Woodward et al (2000)  which attempts to test the postmodern thesis that shopppers are disoriented by mall architecture and thus made vulnerable to consumerism. This is the same idea that leads Kinder to worry about postmodernist kids' TV.In the case of shoppers., Woodward et al suggest that shoppers quickly establish their own routines and are pretty skilled at reading malls and other spaces anyway -- so routine replaces design intentions.


Dawson J and Dennis Lord J (eds) (1985) Shopping Centre Development: policies and prospects, London and Sydney: Croom Helm
During S (1993) The Cultural Studies Reader, London and New York: Routledge
Falk P and Campbell C (eds) (1997) The Shopping Experience, London: Sage Publications
Featherstone M (1991) Consumer Culture and Postmodernism, London: Sage Publications
Fiske J (1987) Television Culture, London and New York: Routledge
Fiske J (1989) Reading the Popular, London: Unwin Hyman
Gardner C and Shepherd J (1989) Consuming Passion: the rise of retail culture, London: Unwin Hyman
Gottdiener M (1995) Postmodern Semiotics: material culture and the forms of postmodern life, Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell.
Zukin S (1990) ‘Socio-Spatial Prototypes of a New Organization of Consumption: The Role of Real Cultural Capital’ in Sociology, vol.24 no.1: 37—56.

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