Even when our health depends on us avoiding unnecessary shopping trips, people still flock to shopping malls in search of a bargain. Our relationship to consumption is complex. That's why it is hard to suddenly change our behaviour and stop shopping, explains researcher Carys Egan-Wyer.
For a long time, researchers understood consumers as rational creatures, whose behaviour could be influenced by pressing the right buttons. According to this logic, it is not easy to understand why people go out and shop in the midst of a pandemic when they know they should not. But they do. Swedes have been persuaded to change their buying patterns over the past year, with significantly more transactions taking place online, and many appear to have cut back on the purchase of certain goods in the shadow of the pandemic. Sales of clothes and shoes have plummeted dramatically, for example. Companies have gone bankrupt and shop windows are empty. Despite this, it has still been necessary for the public health agency to repeatedly implement regulations restricting the number of customers in physical stores and shopping malls.
In order to make sense of this phenomenon, we need to understand that consumers are not rational creatures. When we are told not to go on "unnecessary" shopping trips, it upsets the foundation of our social system, our culture and our identity.
Shopping has a long history of being a leisure activity, starting with traditional market days, which were major events in many town and cities. People came to buy, but also to just look and meet. The establishment of large department stores in the 19th century, marked the start of shopping as an indoor sport often enjoyed with friends. Over the last hundred years or so, we have seen more and more public places being commercialised. Instead of the town square, it is increasingly shopping centres where we drink coffee, eat, shop and socialise. In recent years, being a good citizen has become closely associated with being a good consumer. During economic downturns, governments often actively encourage people to go out and shop. Shopping is our civic duty. The last thirty to forty years of neoliberal economic policy has made us think of ourselves as customers in all parts of life.
In consumer society, consumption shapes our identity and our social relationships. What we buy determines who we are. We show our prosperity and our status through our posessions. And giving and receiving gifts is one of the most important ways we have to show friendship and love. It is no coincidence that, when Stefan Lövfen, the Swedish Prime Minister, broke the public health agency’s recommendations to go shopping at the Gallerian mall, he did so to buy a Christmas present for his wife.
These more complex social explanations for consumption help to explain why it is difficult for many to change their shopping habits in connection with the climate crisis, which is partly driven by the excessive shopping habits of rich western nations. But the pandemic could be a turning point for some. The forced isolation experienced by many has made us reflect on our habits. And those of us who have spent more time at home have had the opportunity to be in close proximity to our often-overflowing wardrobes and cupboards. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, we were seeing a growth in non-consumption trends, such as minimalism and vintage shopping, as well as a growing awareness of the problems of fast fashion and an increased awareness about the climate crisis. This may all combine to help us make changes to behaviours and habits that would otherwise prove very difficult to change. I have heard of many people who have made new year's resolutions not to shop in 2021.
On the other hand, we may well see a backlash in the form of increased consumption when the risk of infection is over. Some scholars draw parallels to the time after the Spanish flu when people were extra eager to go out, dress up and have fun and predict that we will see a similar roaring twenties in the years after the Covid-19 pandemic. This might include excessive consumption. After all, retail is a huge industry with effective marketing tools that are very good at creating desire.
Consumption researcher and Deputy Director of the Centre for Retail Research