To the credit of marketing, advertising, and research people the days of talking about the consumer as the sole focus of shopping activity are essentially gone. We recognize that the shopper and the consumer are not always the same. Indeed, it is often the case that they are not. The focus has shifted to the process that takes place between the first thought a consumer has about purchasing an item, all the way through the selection of that item. While this is a reasonable approach to understanding the people who buy and use a company’s products, it still has one principle flaw. Namely, it focuses on individuals rather than systems of people and the behavioral and cultural drivers behind their actions. The distinction is subtle but important because it assumes the shopping experiences goes well beyond the product itself, which is largely functional, and considers the product (and brand) as a means of facilitating social interaction. In other words, it thinks about shopping as a means of establishing cultural norms, emotional bonds, and identity.
Shopping as a Function
Think of the shopping experience as a continuum of cultural patterns with the shopper moving along the line as influences shape their intent and behavior depending on context, consumer, and people of varying influence falling at different points along the line. The baseline goal may be as simple as getting groceries in the home with the consumers all adding to the shopping list. On the surface, it is a reasonably simple process to understand. We need food to survive and we need to make sure the food we buy reflects the realities of personal tastes within a household. This is the functional side of the shopper experience. First, shopping is viewed as a collection of interdependent parts, with a tendency toward equilibrium. Second, there are functional requirements that must be met in a social unit for its survival (such as procurement of food). Third, phenomena are seen to exist because they serve a function (caloric intake). So shopping is seen in terms of the contribution that the individual shopper makes to the functioning of the whole or the consuming group. Of course, this is part of what we have to market to, but it is only one part of the shopping equation,
The problem is that this approach is unable to account for social change, or for structural contradictions and conflict. It is predicated on the idea that shopping is designed for or directed toward a final result. Shopping, it assumes, is rooted in an inherent purpose or final cause. Buying cookies is more than getting calories into your kids. In fact, it has precious little to do with the kids at all and it is at this point that the shopper begins to move to the other end of the shopping continuum.
Shopping as Part of Something Bigger
Human beings act toward the things they buy on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things. These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters. Shopping, then, can be viewed through the lens of how people create meaning during social interaction, how they present and construct the self (or “identity”), and how they define situations with others. So, back to cookies. The mom buying cookies is rewarding her children, but in doing so she is expressing to herself and the world that she is a good mom, that she is loving, and that she understands her role as a parent.
As another example, imagine a husband who buys all organic vegetables for his vegan wife. He is expressing solidarity, support, recognition of her world view, etc. He may, however, slip a steak into the basket as a personal reward for having been a good husband which he expressed through accommodating her dietary needs. The fundamental question is not whether or not he responds to advertising describing the products, but what are the social and cultural mechanisms under the surface that shape why he makes his choices. What the shopper buys and the consumer shares are individual, rational choices. They are gifts that create an obligation to reciprocate in some way. Through the gift, the givers yield up part of themselves and imbue the product with a certain power that helps maintain the relationship. The gift is therefore not merely a product but also has cultural and social properties. In other words, the shopper and the consumer are doing much more with products than fulfilling the need for which the product was designed. The product becomes a tool for maintaining relationships.
This has implications for where and how we do fieldwork. For example, if we’re interested in, say, how teen and collegiate athletes think about and use sports drinks, we need to think about how teen and collegiate athletes drink in general. What do they do before a night of partying and how can those rituals be used in product development and marketing? How can “pre-gaming” be transitioned from the bar to the locker room?
What that means for a marketer is that when we design a shopping experience, we need to dig deeper than the product. We need to address the underlying social and cultural patterns in people’s lives.
All of this means that when we are develop a new means by which we target shoppers, we need to remember to speak to both ends of the continuum and remember that shopping is both a functional and a symbolic act. While the argument could be made that there are countless ways to categorize shopping and consumption, for ease of application shoppers and shopping break into two categories. On one end is the purely functional element and on the other is the structural/symbolic element. Shopping for nuts and bolts clearly falls on the functional end, but not necessarily the tools with which they are used. Understanding and talking to both ends of the continuum leads to a broader audience and that leads to increased sales and brand recognition. Which is, when all is said and done, the ultimate goal.