Book Review: Lee Eisenberg, “Shoptimism”

Written by Book Reviews, Books

Lee Eisenberg likes to shop. He also has a lot of perspective on how people sell and how people buy. He was the editor in chief of Esquire for many years, telling men what to buy and watching advertisers line up to sell to them. He also worked as an executive at Lands’ End, figuring out how to get customers who pride themselves on being savvy shoppers to part with their above-average income.

Most books written about shopping discuss the evils of it. Naomi Klein’s No Logo and Juliet Schor’s The Overspent American are both about how we are made to feel that we need to buy stuff that we don’t need. And, of course, we all buy things we don’t need. Most people manage their worst impulses, but the waste leads to personal problems like bankruptcy and global problems like excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. (Every item at Macy’s right now will end up at Goodwill, and then on to a landfill, in very short order. And not every item purchased will bring comfort or joy to the buyer in the meantime.)

Eisenberg’s approach is different. He wants us to appreciate shopping. His goal, he writes, is to come up with what he calls his Unified Buy Theory, which would take into consideration all of the reasons, good and bad, that we go out and buy stuff. His vantage point is his apartment near Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue, so his tales skew toward those of affluent folks buying expensive items. He briefly takes a job on the sales floor at Target to learn about discount retailing, but he is vague about how long he worked there. I’m guessing it wasn’t long at all.

That job generated my favorite detail in the book. Eisenberg needed a red shirt to wear at Target. He bought one at Nordstrom, and then had their tailoring staff remove the Facconable logo so that he would fit in.

Other than a handful of Dumpster-diving freegans, most of us shop, and we shop regularly. We may not be happy about this. We may want to buy high-quality handmade goods from local merchants, but we can only afford Target. Or we may only have time to go to Target and pick up cereal and shampoo along with a knock-off sweater made in China.

Eisenberg’s best observation is not so much that we are what we buy, but rather that we are how we buy. What we buy is ultimately a function of our income and our social reference groups, but how we buy is a more innate measure of who we are as people. No matter how much money they have or who they associate with, some people will spend money they don’t have, some people will look for quality over quantity, some people will do careful research, and some people will shop impulsively.

Ultimately, Shoptimism is interesting but not satisfying. Eisenberg talks to shoppers, merchants, and psychologists, but he never comes up with his Unified Buy Theory. He’s disappointed to discover that there isn’t any one reason that we buy. He’s a great storyteller, but he is less persuasive (to me, at least) about the power of shopping.

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