Noun, Verb, Obsession. That is how baby boomer Nancy Petralia of Fort Myers, Florida, describes the evolution in shopping over the holidays. Not just in the lives of fellow boomers, but in the life of modern humankind. First it was a shop. Then we went out to shop. Now we’re obsessed with shopping. Get the picture? You’d better, because it’ll be right in front of you clear through Christmas.
It’s started again. Inbox overflowing. Mailbox too. Constant TV assaults. Black Friday. Small Business Saturday. Cyber Monday. Actually, it’s Black Saturday too, Black Friday week. Black November. Even December. And who’s surprised? We’ll still be shopping when Santa is already in the air from the North Pole. Aren’t we thankful for that?!? How did this happen? How did we come to need to buy, buy, buy, now, now, now?
For about a thousand years it was different. There were tradesmen. Each one with a specialty. Need a sword? Go to the blacksmith. A bolt of cloth? It’s at the weaver. Want a barrel for your ale? The cooper’s your man. Easy to find what you’re looking for. Just look for the iconic sign outside each.
Sometime in the Middle Ages, a new word entered the vernacular. Shop. A noun, that evolved from “sceoppa,” meaning booth, it put a name to the retail purchase location. The Apothecary. The Clothier. The Silversmith. The Hatter. Shopkeepers evolved to the merchants, and the middle class was born.
I wonder how long it took to evolve the word once more. At some point, the daily trek around town, market basket in hand, started to be called… shopping. An action verb. Still, mostly a necessity. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution, when the middle class prospered and grew, that a new form of shopping emerged. The first department store opened in England in 1792.
Maybe you’ve been there and seen what grew out of it: the chain called Selfridges. Which led to what I just finished watching on TV: Masterpiece Theater’s “Mr. Selfridge.” American Harry Selfridge, transplanted to London, turned the department store into a theatrical experience. With public bravado and fearless risk-taking, Selfridge enticed customers into his store and then made sure every one had a dazzling experience. When things got tough, instead of folding, Selfridge did the unthinkable: he held a sale. Those bedazzled clients couldn’t get enough. Discounting became an effective marketing strategy.
Small shops with personal service lost out to bigger and bigger stores with greater buying power and lower prices. Nothing to do tonight? Let’s go to the mall. Just being there is cool. Buy a Cinnabon. Get your ears pierced. Browse the racks. This is LEISURE.
It took the next revolution, this time a technological one, to ratchet up selling once again. In 1989 I went to an INC Magazine tech conference. One of the featured speakers was a short, audacious young man who had shaken up the book-selling market. But when this guy claimed he would change the way everything was sold, the disbelief in the room was palpable. People scoffed that he’d overreach and bankrupt. Instead, Jeff Bezos’ grasp of how to utilize the internet to reach and entice customers while cutting costs became the model for online selling.
His company, Amazon, is still the leader, selling just about everything. Did you spend a few minutes browsing Nike runners yesterday? Look, there’s an ad for your favorite line right on your screen today! How can you resist? Make your selection and see the “You might also like” and “frequently bought together” offerings on the same page. How handy. You never thought of that. Just One-Click to buy. No need for cash. Shipping’s free. So easy. And fun. Let’s go again.
Just about everything’s discounted on Amazon. Stores don’t need huge banners for their windows anymore, just banners across Windows. BIG SALE. Everything 30-70% off. Shop Saturday from 6 AM to midnight — 50% discounts. Buy one, get one half off. Free shipping with orders over $50. Two for one. Get $15 off your order of $100. Enter your coupon code to receive the discount. How can you pass this up? Buy. Buy Now.
Binge shopping is the national obsession. We can’t imagine what the Victorian dinner guest could need with the thirty-two different silver utensils the proper table contained. But our kitchens might contain a Smile face garlic-saver, an “As seen on TV” Potato Express Microwave Potato Cooker, “clean” and “dirty” dishwasher magnets, fried egg molds in the shapes of barnyard animals, a plastic corn kernel stripper, triceratops-shaped taco holders, a yellow banana slicer, and oh, so much more.
Not that these aren’t handy. After all, who wants to spend all that time slicing a banana? Or looking into the dishwasher? Much easier to have the perfect colorful, polypropylene gadget. It’s just that with so many of them, you need more storage space. Kitchen cabinets! So many to choose from. Time to get online and go SHOPPING before Black Friday month is over.
Then again, maybe not. Because it never really ends.
Travel writer Nancy Petralia and her husband John are co-authors of Not In A Tuscan Villa.