Shopping studies, and what they miss

I went to The Dallas Flea this past weekend. I'm not adequately able to put into words how excited I was for this event, but if it helps, I woke up at seven a.m on a Saturday to go. Flea markets are my Mecca. I love browsing booths hawking overpriced vintage clothes, re-purposed artifacts extracted from someone's backyard, and little girl hair ribbons that resemble plumage from an exotic bird. I quite happily spend hours wandering from booth to booth. Miraculously, my feet never hurt. I am unperturbed by dust and musty smells. And I sort of collapse into some bizarre time continuum where the clock seems to stop. It's not unusual for me to be shocked that I've spent four hours browsing and have not bought a single thing.

A OnePoll survey of 2,000 women showed that 63-year-old woman will spend three years of her life shopping, the Daily Mail reports. Each year, women spend 100 hours and 48 minutes in fashion and beauty stores. And add that to the 94 hours and 55 minutes the average woman passes in the grocery store. Then there's the 49 hours' worth of window shopping, 40 hours trying on shoes (shouldn't this be lumped into fashion?), 36 hours picking out gifts, 31 hours browsing books, 29 hours checking out accessories, and 17 hours getting toiletries.

Studies on shopping behavior always fascinate me. The effort taken to quantify the shopping experience through polls on time spent in stores, behavior engaged in while shopping, and mood  shoppers were in while considering purchases seems a daunting, fruitless task. I know from comments in my own blog posts that women approach shopping in entirely different ways. Some relish the chance to hunt down specific items. Others would rather have have a root canal than enter a store. Shopping is a personal experience, influenced by our individual budgets, learned behavior, social norms and regional location.

My love of shopping is primarily born from early observations during trips with my mother.  She was a champion shopper who stalked store credit cards with a ferociousness usually reserved for mother lions guarding their cubs. She thought nothing of trailing shop employees into back rooms. An afternoon traipsing through the mall in search of a pair of navy blue velvet pumps (just one example of a particularly memorable excursion) got her blood pumping, much in a way a marathoner feels before the start of a race. We often had our most intimate conversations while shopping, which reinforced the bonding behavior such activity often entails.

The shopping gene is dominate through the maternal bloodline of my family. My mother's mother was a passionate shopper, as are my aunt and female cousins. When I needed a prom dress, wedding gown, first bra, maternity clothes, or shoes for my first day of school, they were there. It seems a distinctively feminine activity to bond while shopping, something exclusive to women alone. In the book Why We Buy, author Paco Underhill elaborates:
This much is certain: shopping was what got the housewife out of the house. It was (and, in many parts of the world, remains) women’s main realm of public life. Shopping gave women a good excuse to sally forth, sometimes even in blissful solitude, beyond the clutches of family. It was the first form of women’s liberation, affording an activity that lent itself to socializing with other adults, clerks and store owners and fellow shoppers.

The use of shopping as a social activity seems unchanged, however. Women still like to shop with friends, egging each other on and rescuing each other from ill-advised purchases. I don’t think we’ll ever see two men set off on a day of hunting for the perfect bathing suit… When two women shop together, they often spend more time and money than women alone. They certainly can outshop and outspend women saddled with male companions. Two women in a store can be a shopping machine and wise retailers do whatever they can to encourage this behavior — promotions such as being-a-friend-get-a-discount, or seating areas just outside dressing rooms, to allow for more relaxed try-ons… Stores with cafes on the premises allow women to shop, then take a break, without ever leaving sight of the selling floor.
What so many studies on shopping seem to discount or even ignore is the intimacy this activity creates. Whether we love it or hate it, almost all of us have some memory of shopping with friends, a family member, boyfriend or spouse. What happens during all that time spent in stores or while window-shopping is what I find so interesting. 

Do you have any associated memories about shopping? Are you an avid shopper, or do you avoid stores at all costs? Has shopping reinforced the relationships you have with friends or family? Do you see shopping as a social activity, or one that serves a utilitarian purpose? Do you prefer to shop alone, or with someone else?


  1. I'm a lone shopper now, but wasn't always, and definitely have fond memories of shopping with friends and with my marvelous mom!

  2. Shopping used to be my therapy. Definitely a lone shopper. I enjoyed strolling down aisles and aisles of merchandise. As a seamstress I have an acute eye for details, seams and fabric. I could spend hours discussing lapels and buttons and the techniques for attaching lining to a jacket.

  3. Shopping is what I do with my mom. It's when we have amazing conversations about anything and everything. I hardly ever go shopping without her and she says she hates going without me; definitely a social thing.

  4. Fond memories of shopping with my mom, that's for sure. As an adult I can't stand shopping with other women because I don't browse. I also have a son, which makes me wonder. Do you think women with daughters shop more than women with sons?

  5. My shopping habits are purely a function of my emotions. If I'm having a bad day, I could spend hours just trying on ridiculous things with my mom because she never says anything bad about how something looks. If I'm busy and shopping out of necessity, just me, a list, and a pair of shoes I can walk fast in.

    If I had to participate in a shopping survey, the results would be greatly skewed based on the day and the questions they asked. Where do people get money for absurd surveys like this?

  6. I remember one shopping experience where the family was in town for my wedding. We were shopping for some clothes for me. Present were my mother, my mother in law (to be), my husbands Aunt and my paternal Grandmother. All I remember was my Grandmother saying that shopping with me is worse than root canal. That about sums it up, lol. Although I LOVE to look at clothes and love to watch Project Runway, I have a hard time buying anything.

  7. I started to tear up when I read this. I am a lone shopper now (unless I am shopping with my husband and son for their stuff). But my entire childhood, adolescence and college years I spent nearly every weekend shopping with my grandma. You didn't just buy a pair of pants, or a top. You created an ensemble. I had more shoes than most girls had Barbie dolls. It wasn't that I was shopping at expensive places (JC Penny was a mainstay for us often), and much of what we picked out was playground perfect. But the day was all about girl time. She'd raised three boys and I was her first grandchild-a girl. She wore the most fashionable clothes (knee-high maroon leather boots, fabulous oversized sweaters with leggings, flouncy sundresses...all totally 80's), dolled me up and off we went. There were three malls in our area, and we would rotate. We had our favorite lunch spots (one mall had a department store that still had a restaurant!). We would return to her house loaded down with bags and I would put on a fashion show for my grandpa.

    What I miss the most about those shopping days is the chatting over a basket of french fries, arguing over which pair of shoes was the best for the dress, or seeing her eyes light up when she found a new purse to add to her collection. I have yet to find a shopping buddy to equal her, and doubt I ever will.

  8. Another great post, Elissa!

    My mother hates shopping, so who knows where I got my, ahem, obvious penchant for retail therapy from. As a fellow thrifter, you know what kind of joy can be had from sifting through the racks until you discover that perfect treasure, but my mom is of the" I wear clothes for practical reasons" camp. I'm like her in pretty much every other area of my life besides this one, oddly enough.

    Also, I used to despise shopping alone, but now I love it. I can take my time perusing all the different racks without someone impatiently calling for me to hurry - which is inevitably what happens when I shop with a "non-shopper."

  9. It depends on the garment I'm shopping. If I'm thrifting, I want my husband along--who knows how to leave me alone in that setting. If I'm shopping for something I've never worn before, it is often a good idea to bring along one of my daughters. I know that I can trust them for honest feedback and often they have a better idea of where to find what I'm after.

  10. I'm sure you've heard this many times before, but as a British person I would advise that you should take anything printed in the Daily Mail with a hefty pinch of salt. It is widely renowned for its "sidebar of shame" in which it hosts its countless articles about celebrities' bodies and scrutinises their various "faults".
    I don't mean to impose any kind of ideas on you and I hope you don't find this rude or offensive, I just thought in case you didn't know that you might like to, especially given your body positive message. I really admire you and enjoy reading your blog, and I thought you might want to know.

  11. i L O V E shopping of any kind, from home depot to barneys.

    and while i recall fondly shopping with my gram and aunt, i am a solo shopper now.

    i just love the freedom to peruse the racks and stores as i please without being on anyone's else agenda.

  12. I prefer to shop solo because I can take my time & try on the same pair of jeans 5-6 times, just to compare it with 5 different ones (trial room vacancy permitting of course). But I also find it a bit lonely; having only the voices in my head for company is a noisy shop is not fun.

    But at the same time, I hate shopping with friends. I always feel rushed even if they don't verbally say anything. Perversely, I feel like their presence is an intrusion on my privacy .I never buy anything more than a nail polish when I'm out with them even if they're shopping for a new wardrobe.

    Having said that, I do enjoy shopping with my mom. She gives me her always-polite opinion and often browses the racks for clothes that she thinks I might like when I'm in the trial room. I feel like she's doesn't rush me & we tend to have great conversations when we're walking about from shop to shop.

  13. Jen's comment really touches me. Her memory to shopping w/ her grandmother is so strong and the tie to that still not broken.

    Love this piece especially citing that this was and still is in some places how women primarily a way for a woman to get out of the house. I actually much prefer shopping for myself and for gifts for people alone. I like shopping w/ people for them!


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