Could shopping ever really matter? I mean matter in such a way that people other than commercial researchers, property developers and retail giants themselves bothered to take it seriously? Twenty years ago there would have been little reason to think so. But things have changed. Shopping now matters to a wide range of people, including cultural commentators and academics. But if shopping can (and does) matter as a subject of broader appreciation, debate and study, then what is it that matters about shopping?

From my perspective, really understanding shopping — what people buy, and why and how they buy in the way they do — is one of the most important questions we seek to answer in commercial research. But not just ad hoc, project by project. I want to argue here that shopping matters, because a better understanding of shopping means that we (also) have a better understanding of the social and cultural forces shaping the lives that we (and our respondents) lead. And that‘s one of the things that clients pay us for.

Increasing commercial pressures for ‘insight‘ mean that we have to work ever harder to unlock the smiles (and budgets) of research buyers. But as an industry we don‘t always make best use of the world of ideas available to us. There are numerous ‘pockets‘ of thinking that we could productively draw upon. Here, I‘m going to take you on a guided tour of just some of the myriad ideas within academia, directly or indirectly related to shopping, that could help us to think a little bit smarter and work a bit more effectively.

Brave New World

Modern academic interest in shopping and consumption in developed societies came from a number of disciplines and included a diverse range of writers such as Bowlby (1985, 2000), Campbell (1987) and Williams (1982). Often there was an attempt to explore and understand the cultural impact of fundamental social, political and economic change. Importantly, modern consumption, and its most visible expression as shopping, was frequently seen as the defining manifestation of a new mode of living. Shopping and consumption were viewed as no less than the primary expression of a modern capitalist system.

Writers such as Bowlby and Campbell tend to focus on the emergence of the ‘modern’ era — a time when economic progress facilitated mass manufacture. With mass manufacture, they said, came the possibility of mass consumption. With the possibility (and reality) of mass consumption came the need for a new form of retailing that could cater for the newly unleashed demand. Modern retailing was born and in its wake followed a new, highly visible practice: shopping.

Given this connection between macro forces and micro-behaviours, the argument goes, through shopping we can begin to understand the social and cultural factors that help shape individuals, families and societies. Shopping and consumption offer us a window into our social and cultural worlds and this is of use and interest to us as professional watchers of people. However, it also works in reverse: a big picture perspective on cultural and social worlds offers us a window into the worlds of shopping and consumption.

The value of work such as this to commercial researchers is that it challenges us to examine things we take for granted — like the heritage of the places and spaces we now see all around us; the supermarkets, shopping malls, high streets and boot sales of modern life. In particular, we could ask what ‘ethic’ or ‘code’ drives contemporary shopping spaces in developed societies?

We could also ask what ‘ethic’ drives the activity of contemporary shopping itself. There are many possible answers, from the need for expressive consumption (I am what I wear) to the anxious compulsion to care and provide for others (see DeVault, 1991). Combining these theories and conceptualisations with our own pragmatic experience as researchers is a potentially powerful recipe.

Aisles of Ideas

Where can we find relevant
theories and concepts? After years on the margins of social science, shopping and consumption are now regarded as important areas of study. This is exemplified by the high status that certain studies on shopping and consumption have achieved in a variety of fields or disciplines.

In psychology, Lunt and Livingstone‘s book Mass Consumption and Personal Identity (1992) is a notable landmark. Here, the authors explored the links between the psychological bases of self and the process of consumption (which has shopping at its core). One aspect of this analysis was the role of gender in the shaping and nature of roles within practices of consumption.

Although much research has been done in the decade since Lunt and Livingstone‘s text, it remains an extremely useful example of how academics have attempted to place shopping and consumption as central to personal (and collective) psychological development. Moreover, it provides a resource through which the commercial researcher can contextualise and validate ideas and ’theories’ that may have a more prosaic and ’common sense‘ basis.

Within economics, interest in shopping and consumption has tended to centre on macro economic factors (such as demand) and rational choice thinking (i.e. the quasi-scientific approach to understanding how decisions are made). Perhaps the main exception to this has been the work of Ben Fine, a Professor of Economics at London University.

Fine’s contribution to a more expansive economics has been significant. For example, in his book Consumption in the Age of Affluence (with Heasman and Wright 1993), he attempts to bring together a number of disciplines in order to better understand the modern UK food business. Subjects covered — to name just a few — include the sugar business, the dairy system, food norms, children, food and class and food studies in general.

The inclusion of policy issues makes this work of interest to social researchers as well as those working towards a commercial brief. Undoubtedly, this is ’Big Picture’ stimulus, but worthy of at least a quick investigation by anyone with more than a passing interest in food and drink consumption and shopping.

In sociology, cultural studies and cultural geography, shopping and consumption have never been more important. The sheer scope of the work means that I can only offer the most basic coverage here. However, one could do much worse than take a look at Shopping, Place and Identity (Miller et. al., 1998). The book takes two London shopping centres — Brent Cross and Wood Green — as its backdrop. The authors use these two centres as a ’prop‘ for a much broader discussion of identity and the role of shopping in the formation of identity.

The work is supported by ethnographic research conducted within households in north London. To this extent, the micro worlds of everyday life are paired with the macro-worlds of contemporary shopping centres. The fascination lies in the intersection of historical and contemporary, macro and micro, and the creation (and crossing) of collective and individual identities. This will interest those seeking to stretch their thinking and is likely to provide rich territory for better analysing our own research.

Feed Me

If the world of food and drink is your specific bag, then Consuming Geographies by cultural geographers David Bell and Gill Valentine (1997) is well worth a look. This is not the book to give as a present to a food retailer or manufacturer client, as it can be highly critical of the food business. The authors critically examine our relationship to food, issues of body shape, cooking, eating, the role of food technology and the roles of supermarkets in mediating our experience of food. However, as a thought-provoker, something that works to stretch our thinking, this book is an excellent starting point.

Continuing with the focus on cultural geography, research emanating from the geography department of University College London during the 1990s (see Cook, Crang and Thorpe 1999, 2000) represents a significant contribution to the academic knowledge pool. The UCL team of which I was a part sought to examine the role of provenance and ’imagined geographies‘ on the way people shopped, consumed and thought about both food and their own identities as people and consumers. Ethnography, stretching over 18 months, was the primary research tool used. The research, like Miller‘s, was based in north London, evidently a popular location.

The UCL team was primarily looking to use the micro-focus of ethnography to help put ’Big Picture’ thinking into context. For
example, one of the core questions was how do individuals, households, supermarkets, personal worlds and commercial (food) worlds relate and/or intersect? In short, we were asking what cultural stories lay behind contemporary food shopping and consumption. In many ways, it was the sort of research many food companies and retailers should be doing, but which is essentially prohibitive in terms of time and financial resources.

Within anthropology, the work of Daniel Miller on consumption and the meaning of things — how and why material objects are imbued with meaning — is seminal (see for example Miller 1987, 1994, 1995, 1998a and 2001). His book, A Theory of Shopping (1998b) is based on a long-running ethnographic study undertaken (once again…) in North London.

The book is actually an amalgam of a triad of ’grand’ theories of shopping set out in the three core chapters: ’Making Love in Supermarkets‘, ’Shopping as Sacrifice‘, and ’Subjects and Objects of Devotion‘. It seems that this book has been designed to make us sit up and take notice, and then to think very hard about one of the most ‘obvious‘ components of
people’s daily lives.

In it, Miller draws upon some well-trodden anthropological territory to help make sense of shopping. Perhaps most intriguing is his argument that the dynamics of food shopping bear a striking resemblance to primitive forms of sacrificial practice.

From his perspective, food shopping is not merely a necessity but is, rather, a ritualised enactment of devotion and celebration. In short, shopping and the subsequent consumption are acts of sacrificial ritual, linking us directly with amongst others the ancient Greeks. Mad, maybe — but it makes you think, and from such thinking comes perhaps a more penetrating understanding.

Dipping into the Knowledge Pool

Miller‘s overarching argument is that neither shopping nor consumption is ’neutral’ and socially or culturally isolated. This point should not be glossed over. By its very nature, commercial research (particularly qualitative research) is ad hoc in nature, dealing with specific projects and problems as and when they arise.

Focusing on isolated projects, however, can mean a failure to understand broader social and cultural dynamics that directly impact upon behaviour — even behaviour as apparently mundane as shopping. Improving the quality of our delivery to research buyers is not just about dealing with specific projects as well as we can. It is also about understanding the broader social and cultural forces at play that help shape how (and what) we buy and consume.

Academic research and thinking offers a potentially stimulating and useful stream of information and insight. There is an immense reservoir of knowledge and insight open to us, but we may have to be more open to seeing things differently. Sometimes we need to be shocked out of our models of thinking, to see the world in a different light. Stepping into — even grappling with — a new language and alien perspective can help us recognise both our current limitations and our future possibilities.

We should perhaps look no further than Christmas just past to see the value of ’dipping‘ into this reservoir of knowledge. How much research on shopping at Christmas has been commissioned over the last 12 months? How many times have gifts and ’gifting‘ been mentioned in client briefs, agency debriefs and in general conversation over the last few months?

I know from the work done at my own company that such issues are never far away. In a world where the search for value-adding is intense, understanding gifting becomes ever more important.

Gifting has been the subject of literally thousands of publications and commentaries within the social sciences, and particularly anthropology. The reach of inquiry has been global and much has been dependent on the use of ethnography. Why has gifting held such appeal?

Academics have long since recognised that by understanding the process of gifting we can better grasp the factors that structure culture and society. Very simply put, gifting is not just about giving. It is, in many instances, about the recognition and expression of culturally-rooted conventions and social relations.

Gifting is also about a complex process of communication whereby giving is also a process of receiving. Commercial researchers who work in this field will recognise these insights, but may lack frameworks through which to push their ideas further. If you‘re interested in gifting, try for example Carrier (1995), Gregory (1982), Lederman (1986), Mauss (1966), Strathern (1988) or Weiner (1992).

As the going gets tough

The tough have to go shopping. This article
really only touches the surface of possibilities open to us in developing a better understanding of shopping and of consumption in contemporary societies. As I see it, both are intriguing, and both present immense challenges in terms of making sense of the complexity of human action and interaction. Hopefully, by this point you will all be itching to access the nearest information source.

So far, so good. Be warned, though. Sometimes, dealing with academic work could send you too close to the edge of Reason for comfort. For example, any commercial researcher reading Daniel Miller‘s A Theory of Shopping will, at times, need to be patient. For those well versed in researching shopping, and food shopping in particular, there are two or three ’revelations’ that are nothing short of trite.

The bigger claims made in the book about sacrifice and ritual may well serve to engage, anger or, more likely, do both simultaneously. The argument that shopping is an expression of the “transcendence from de-humanising to humanising social relations” is unlikely to be a
winner in debrief situations. The links made between shopping and
sacrifice, however, are profound; I would urge all readers to take a
look for themselves.

As the demands on commercial researchers increase, we need to break down and reconcile our solitudes — to intellectually get out a bit more, if you like. We need to acquaint ourselves with diverse forms of knowledge in order to increase our grasp of ’things‘ and enhance our own relevance. As we all know, a better understanding of culture and society benefits not only our ability to think critically about shopping, but also our ability to be better researchers.


Bell, D, Valentine, G. (1997) Consuming Geographies: We Are Where We Eat, London: Routledge

Bowlby, R. (1985) Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing and Zola, London: Methuen

Bowlby, R. (2000) Carried Away: The Invention of Modern Shopping, London: Faber & Faber

Campbell, C. (1987) The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Oxford: Blackwell

Carrier, J. (1995) Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism since 1700, London: Routledge

Cook, I, Crang, P, Thorpe, M. (1999) ’Eating Into Britishness’, in S. Roseneil, J. Seymour (eds.) Practising Identities: Power and Resistance, Basingstoke: Macmillan

Cook, I, Crang, P, Thorpe, M. (2000) ’Regions to be Cheerful: Culinary Authenticities and its Geographies’, in I. Cook, D. Crouch, S. Naylor and J. Ryan (eds.) Cultural Turns/Geographical Turns, Essex: Pearson Education

DeVault, M. (1991) Feeding the Family, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Fine, B, Heasman, M, Wright, J. (1996) Consumption in the Age of Affluence, London: Routledge

Gregory, C. (1982) Gifts and Commodities, London: Academic Press

Lederman, R. (1986) What Gifts Engender: Social Relations and Politics in Mendi, Highland Papua New Guinea, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press

Lunt, P, Livingstone, S. (1992) Mass Consumption and Personal Identity, Buckingham: Open University Press

Mauss, M. (1966) The Gift, London: Cohen and West

Miller, D. (1987) Material Culture and Mass Consumption, Oxford: Blackwell

Miller, D. (1994) Modernity: An Ethnographic Approach, Oxford: Berg

Miller, D. (ed.) (1995) Acknowledging Consumption, London: Routledge

Miller, D. (ed.) (1998a) Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter, London: UCL Press

Miller, D. (1998b) A Theory of Shopping, Cambridge: Polity Press

Miller, D. (ed.) (2001) Home Possessions: Material Culture Behind Closed Doors, Oxford: Berg

Miller, D, Jackson, P, Thrift, N, Holbrook, B, Rowlands, M. (1998) Shopping, Place and Identity, London: Routledge

Strathern, M. (1988) The Gender of the Gift, Berkeley: University of California Press

Weiner, A. (1992) Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving, Berkeley: University of California Press

Williams, R. (1982) Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth Century France, Berkeley: University of California Press