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.

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?"


Cynthia said...

Interesting post. I think I may have this problem with cardigans. And probably also with tall boots.

I know online shopping is my issue. I got hooked on it while I was a the most difficult size (18M) and that was really the only way to get and try on clothes, and now it's bad habit extraordinaire. But then, at the time I started developing the habit, the web tools to make it compulsive did not exist. Now on every blog I go to, I see ads for tall tan boots. I really need to start using Adblock or something.

Shey said...

I never thought about that althought I had noticed that whenever I was browsing at online clothing stores they would give me other options at the bottom that I would also like, I think it's a bit worst when shopping online because in person unless it's a seller following around you don't have other similar things in front of you all at once. However I've been known to buy too many white shirts and peter pan collar shirts and skirts...not very wise, some have become great deals and things I wear all the time, others like your booties collection are just nice to look at and say "they are mine." I remember the old days when one shite shirt was enough and I had less than 7 pairs of shoes in my closet. I don't know what happened to me, I think it was that I moved back to the U.S. Many times I heard my friends in Mexico criticize the American consimerism, I didn't believe it then and now I realized that I've become one more person who is a consumerist.

jesse.anne.o said...

I think of things like this as reinforcement programs. I do find the "related items" helpful sometimes, although I prefer if the site has a filter/search where I can steer my own boat.

But, on that note, it's true that we are all results of our time, exposure and values. Even at the resale shops - I recall walking into Beacon's Closet last year and hearing one buyer coach another one as they were going through the racks. "Pastels and prep are in this season. Take things that are frumpy. Less dark or architectural clothing."

So, even there - even at a vintage-selling buy-what-customers-bring-in resale shop, my choices are being molded and not just on availability.

tigerteacher said...

This is something I'm thinking of often over the past couple of weeks. I wont' bore you with the details, but I purchased some things from Sears.com and had lots of difficulty with my order - things out of stock, their redoing my bill but removing the sale prices that had been effective the date I made the purchases, delivery and installation issues, etc. In all, it resulted in seven customer service calls in which I spoke to a variety of very pleasant people, none of whom were empowered with the ability to do anything more than record my complaint or transfer me to the next person who couldn't help me either. Now I'm getting daily emails from Sears advising me about similar items that I might like. It's bothersome on a number of levels. First, because it's so obviously automated and no one is actually checking whether these things make sense before bugging people with them. One of the items I bought was a kitchen stove - do they really think it's useful to send me daily emails about other kitchen stoves? How many people actually buy more than one of these within, even say 5 or 10 years, of their last one? But the thing that bugs me most is that these emails are perfectly symbolic of the lack of thought or care invested in the customer's experience AFTER they've made the purchase.

I guess what I'm thinking of here is really some effect of corporatization. If I had shopped from a local appliance dealer (a rare find these days) I wouldn't be getting these emails with thoughtless suggestions to buy a new stove each day and I would have been able to talk to a shop owner who would have taken personal responsibility for seeing the order through and keeping my business.

I guess this turned into a bit of a rant on my part but these emails are just so puzzling to me and reflective of such a very superficial interest in cultivating a repeat customer.

Anonymous said...

I have not thought of this subject in such deep terms, I must admit. Despite the fact that I do possess 14 black skirts, I have never accused myself of having no free will and being manipulated into buying them. I have always seen my love of black skirts a compromise between my job (teaching forces me to be at least slightly elegant) and my lifelong love for all things goth (this love has faded over the years considerably). That's why I obviously needed a classic pencil black skirt and a pencil black skirt with a frilly tail, a maxi black skirt and a midi with a tremendous corset lacing in the back, 2 full black skirts, one slightly below the knee, on slightly above, one pleated and one pleated as well but with delicate white dots...and so the madness continues. But I can assure you that in my mind I can justify rationally the purchase of every one of them. How rational it *really* was, I dare not judge.
I rarely buy online thus do not come across web recommendations too often; I guess anyway I'd reject them for the pure spite that resides in my mind. What I've always loathed in my life was the bitter consciousness that someone is trying to manipulate me into something (there's no one who likes it but some people simply do not care); it triggers in me indefinite amounts of anger... then again, I do own 73 scarves. And seems my biggest problem here is the ability to count just about anything.

Eyeliah said...

I have seemed to let go of these cravings in the past 6 months, which has scared me in regards to what I can blog about now? I have a small wardrobe, barely any shoes.....
Still waaaay too many socks and skirts thou, so it's not like I'm immune.
Fringe is filmed in my city! I see the set ups and filming all the time. :)