Point of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture

Robert Guang Tian (Touro University International, Medaille College, Buffalo, New York, USA)

Journal of Consumer Marketing

ISSN: 0736-3761

Article publication date: 27 June 2008




Guang Tian, R. (2008), "Point of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture", Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 25 No. 4, pp. 265-266. https://doi.org/10.1108/07363760810882498



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Shopping is a complex system for integrating people into worlds of goods, it is our life, everyone has his or her own approach to shopping, individuals separate themselves from others by deciding where to shopping and what to buy, but in no other activities are individuals so immediately in the presence of others and present themselves to the others. It is notable that shopping has changed American culture. “Our mass culture is based on the belief that shopping is a patriotic duty” (p. 14). “No matter where we go or who we are, shopping dominates our lives” (p. 253). As the history goes, America has become more that ever a nation of shoppers. This is what one can conclude by reading Point of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture, a ground‐breaking book on culture and shopping by the sociologist Sharon Zukin.

Dr Zukin is Broeklundian Professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She received her BA from Barnard and her PhD from Columbia University. Dr Zukin specializes in the Sociology of Cites, Culture and the Economy. Author of Landscapes of Power, The Cultures of Cities and the classic study Left Living, as well as editor, with Michael Sorkin, of After the World Trade Center (Routledge, 2002), she writes broadly about cities and culture. Landscapes of Power won the Copy Wright Mills Award; and the New York Times named After the World Trade Center one of the best books of the year on architecture in 2002. She lives – and shops – in Manhattan.

In the book Dr Zukin defines and addresses the idea of value, a concept originally developed by the sociologist Georg Simmel in early nineteenth century. It is very simple that any thing purchased by an individual must be worth something to that particular person. This worth may be social, cultural, or economic. It is both abstract, when it is expressed in terms of price or popularity, and personal, when it has a specific quality for the particular individual who purchases it. The judgments of value, according the Dr Zukin, are usually social, cultural, and economic. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to separate different sources of influence. Moreover, they often influence the shoppers in contradictory ways (p. 14).

According to Dr Zukin, shopping in the US has changed. Shopping is no longer about securing necessities but has become an avenue to pursue the spiritual. As any shopper will attest, buying the right thing at the right time provides a terrific balm for the soul. Then it is natural that we may ask how shopping became such a powerful factor in our lives. Zukin traces this incredible phenomenon, moving from the mid‐nineteenth century to today's shopping trends, from the grand department store to eBay and Zagat guides. Clearly, as she says: “Shopping forces us both to take account of our place in society and to imagine what is would be like to rise above it. When shopping is a social encounter, when it is done in the supposedly democratic air of a public space; this imagined upward mobility gives us a sharp experience of being on the edge between freedom and inequality” (p. 29).

Using her sociologist way of thinking, Dr Zukin explains that shopping is a lifelong process of learning how to choose – and how to deal with the anxiety of choosing – what to wear, what to eat, and what to buy. From interviews with mothers and teens to histories of famous department stores, boutiques, discount chains, and branded stores; Zukin weaves a story of how our mentality as shoppers is shaped by each store. These social spaces of consumption represent our dreams and urges for social status and perfection. In the book she says: “Shopping is, most intensely, a learning process. This life long learning begins in childhood … (p. 29) Shopping through a store's displays permits us to develop knowledge about goods without acquiring the goods themselves … Shopping gives us the proximate experience with goods we need to make true distinction” (p. 40).

Lizabeth Cohen, the author of A Consumer's Republic, knows well about Dr Zukin's work and indicates that Sharon Zukin has expertly guided us through urban spaces and what she inventively called “landscapes of power.” In Point of Purchase, Zukin stresses today's “landscapes of consumption” – the department stores, discount chains, consumer guides, and Internet websites where Americans are daily redefining themselves through shopping. The current reviewer fully agrees with Cohen's judgment that with Zukin as our intrepid navigator, the familiar waters of commerce suddenly becomes the cutting edge of contemporary American culture.

As a sociologist, Dr Zukin probes the social and cultural means of shopping by examining consumers' shopping patterns and preferences from a historical perspective as well as from a sociological viewpoint. She is good at exploring the deeper cosmologies that lie behind routine shopping activities. Dr Zukin argues that shopping is full of cultural means, as she indicates that “The social spaces and cultural labels of shopping offer us hope of achieving the American Dream: Low prices define our conception of democracy. Brand names represent our search for a better life. Designer boutiques embody the promise of an ever‐improving self” (p. 8). It is true that “shopping trips become a weekly ritual in every American family's routine” (p. 79). Moreover, “shopping is one of the few activities that still bring all classes of people together in a public, or somewhat public, space … . Everyone can find a bargain here, and we love it” (p. 63).

“In a democracy, you shop for what you really want. The appeal of a shopping spree is not that you'll buy a lot of stuff; the appeal is that, among all the stuff you buy, you'll find what you truly want” (p. 112).” Unlike the critics who focus on “affluenza” and “the urge to splurge,” Dr Zukin does not express disapproval of shoppers but argues that shopping has become paramount in our daily lives because it is one of the few means of creating value we have left. Deprived of direct contact with nature or with making goods ourselves, shopping gives us a way to satisfy our drive for beauty, to get what we think is “the best,” and to hone our ability to make judgments, shape time, and use money. We shop because we long for value – for a virtuous ideal of value that we no longer get from religion, work, or politics.

A conflict that many shoppers may experience is between shopping to supply one's need and shopping to acquire social status and cultural capital, which is the kind of shopping that has become more popular since 1980s. Although traditional thought suggests that women are mostly status shoppers, Dr Zukin observed that “men have always considered their social status when shopping for the big purchases – cars and houses … . As more and more men became interested in style, shopping provided them with new cultural capital” (p. 41). People tend to associate themselves with the stores where they shop often; switching stores is changing identities and thus takes time to adapt and adjust. She says: “Our desire to shop derives from the biological drive of hunting for food, the modern ideology of individual choice, and the social drive – to get “the best.” But we are thwarted by subjective factors like our bodies, by objective factors like price, and by simply not knowing where, at a specific moment, to find the bargains” (p. 62). As such, “shoppers learned to use shopping as an opportunity to do research on goods – and gain cultural capital” (p. 41).

Daniel Miller, the author of Contexts, says: “Zukin is very good at exploring the deeper cosmologies that lie behind ordinary acts [and] she has produced a mature work of analysis,” a statement with which the current reviewer fully agrees. For instance, instead of relating brand name with the competition she connects brand name with the consumer culture and indicates that “the connection between branding and value plays an important part in consumer culture” (p. 197). Moreover, “the competition between branded retailers isn't limited to the social space of the store” (p. 224) but extends to larger society. Shoppers, through their shopping behavior, build society and craft selves. “If we do not shop for a perfect society, at least we shop for a perfect self. If the social spaces and cultural institutions of shopping produced nineteenth century Paris, so they have also produced America Today (p. 268).”

Well researched and thorough, the book unearths how and where we shop and, more importantly, why consumer culture has so much power over our society. The author uses plain but powerful language to display the important role that shopping plays in our life. What impresses the current reviewer most is that the author's ability of presenting her in‐depth sociological thought and discovering by telling stories that every one can easily follow and understand. Another feature that impressed this reviewer most is the author's senses of humor in exploring serious sociological issues. For instance, when discusses about the impact of shopping on social class contradictory, she writes “If Karl Marx were alive today, he would write about shopping as the new class struggle. … It is hard to say, however – as Marx would want to know – who is exploiting whom” (p. 263).

The adroit juxtaposition of source types lends Zukin's arguments credence. In this reviewer's opinion, this book is one of the pilot studies on sociology of shopping, which presents shopping as the pursuit of the American dream, where low prices define our concept of democracy, brand names represent our search for a better life, and designer boutiques embody the promise of an ever‐improving self. Accessible, smart, and expansive, this book is a must read for anyone curious about shopping and lour lives today in general, and for those who are keen on consumer studies and retail studies in particular. It for sure will appeal to students of contemporary American culture, business, and fashion, as a business professor I will strongly recommend this book to all my students and my colleagues.

Related articles