Several times Amazon has recommended a book to me that is spot on. I have found interesting movies on Netflix on the basis of what they have recommended. Online clothing stores can figure out pretty quickly that there is no point in telling me that I'd like a pink ruffly minidress. Instead, they have noticed that I have taken a sudden liking to corduroy and, yes, ankle boots. To me, this is to some extent helpful, but also deeply disturbing. Can my mind be defined on the basis of what I shop, and if this is the case, who am I but a sum of my purchases and the emotional rewards that accompany them? Walter Kirn asks: "If a mind can be read, what’s the point of even having one?"
Tuesday, 4 January 2011
On the Black Hole of Consumption
Walter Kirn wrote an interesting piece for The New York Times Magazine on the fascinating topic of computer software, used by Amazon and Netflix, that uses our search histories and purchases to predict what we might buy next. (See the article, My Cart, My Self.) Since I bought the latest Pet Shop Boys album on Amazon, my recommendations page has gone from offering me books on insane asylums to suggesting I buy early Depeche Mode and New Order as well as every single remix album the PSB has ever released. (There are many.) At the moment our Netflix recommendations page is heavily tilted toward everything sci-fi because we have been back-tracking on Fringe (which, in my opinion, is the most mind-bending show on tv at the moment). And then, of course, there are the clothes. Piperlime and other online clothing stores offer you the 'you-might-also-like' feature: basically, if you browse and click on a pair of lace-up brown ankle boots, they will give you plenty of more options in the same genre. I like to call this phenomenon 'taking advantage of the customer's black hole of consumption'. We all have one.
"Who is the customer?" is probably the most important question in marketing and retail, including the world of fashion. That question infiltrates everything from the nature and the quality of the clothes to their price range and their online presentation, from the size of the actual fitting rooms to what type of music the store should play in order to sneakily enter the subconscious of the target customer. Once you figure out what sells to that target customer, there are no limits in keeping the black hole of potential consumption open. I worked in clothing retail for a relatively short time, but I learned very quickly to recognise what certain types of customers bought. The profiling of a particular customer's black hole might arise from age, income level, what they are wearing, or even body type. The wrap-dress is a good example. Curvy women buy wrap-dresses, in part because they look good in wrap-dresses and because the wrap-dress is a wonderful piece of clothing design, but also in part because the wrap-dress-buyer fits the brand, and because the sales assistant might have been taught to push wrap-dresses to customers with a curvy body. And once you persuade the customer that wrap-dresses are the way to go, that same customer will come back for more wrap-dresses. The black hole of consumption is open for business.
I don't really know where the notion of free will fits in. We like to think that we buy things because we choose to. But the end result is that we all find a certain piece of clothing in our wardrobes that has seeminly multiplied itself over a period of time. Yes, it could be that we know what we like and buy what we like. Whether it is a wrap dress, a white shirt, jeans, a structured handbag or even a particular colour, we tend to buy more of the same thing as time goes by. To me it seems a little naive to think that we have voluntarily chosen to shop that way. Why would we spend our money on things we already have?
In recent years, I have bought numerous pairs of ankle boots. Once I fell in love with the way they looked (or once I fell victim to a sneaky marketing plan), I bought them in different colours, different styles, different finishes. I wear one pair actively, the others every once in a while. It gives me enormous pleasure to look at my collection of ankle boots - they are beautiful, and I am glad they are mine. But really, did I actively even want them all? Another black hole in my shoe department is black suede. Lace-up black suede ankle boots - check. Tall black suede boots - triple check. Architechtural black suede ankle boots - check. I have no idea what draws me in when I see black suede. Who knows, maybe I just like it. But it is no coincidence that Piperlime knows to tell me that I'd probably like a pair of flat black suede boots, because, indeed, I would.
My guess is that the availability of throw-away fashion has made our black holes of consumption even more lucrative to sellers. What's another little black dress in the wardrobe if it only costs $14.99? The more availability there is, the more we tell ourselves that we have discovered our style, that we need more options, and that we need to stock up. Sometimes this can be wise, other times it is just thoughtless consumption.