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The sociology of consumer behavior is now enjoying a renaissance of interest. In an earlier period of American sociology, particularly in the years immediately before and after World War II, consumer behavior was pretty much ignored. While consumers were mentioned in early community studies (Lynd and Lynd 1937; Warner and Lunt 1941), few articles on consumer behavior appeared in professional journals. Classical theorists were certainly not at fault; they left a rich heritage of sociological theory: Simmel ( 1957) writing on fashion, Marx ( 1990) on commodity fetishism, Weber ( 1959) on status groups, Veblen ( 1953) on conspicuous consumption. Handbooks published up through the 1980s continued to discuss traditional sociological concerns related to politics, deviant behavior, and race relations (Merton, Broom, and Cottrell 1959; Faris 1964; Smelser 1988). But consumer behavior was not mentioned at all.
It is anybody’s guess why consumers were ignored by sociologists for so long. Possibly, consumer behavior was considered to be the province of other academic domains—economics, for example, or retailing and marketing. Marxists and neo-Marxists saw societies organized around production, with consumption a distraction from the paramount concerns of capitalism (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972). Others have speculated that production has been the perennial winner in the sociological agenda. Possibly too sociologists thought that consumption was frivolous. Mills (1953) commented that Veblen’s satirical attack on the new middle class actually blurred his understanding of conspicuous consumption.
During the last few decades, many observers became increasingly convinced that societies were changing in their orientation from production to consumption (McKendrick, Brewer, and Plumb 1982; Campbell 1987). Two other factors, however, played a more immediate role in precipitating this area’s growth. The first is the “cultural turn” in sociology: the realization of culture’s fundamental role in understanding society (Alexander 1990). Consumer goods are, after all, cultural artifacts. Not surprisingly, anthropologists introduced much of the early research and many of the seminal works in this area (Richardson and Kroeber 1940; Sahlins 1976; Mintz 1985; McCracken 1988). Key here is the joint publication of an anthropologist and economist: Douglas and Isherwood’s (1979) World of Goods, a scathing critique of the utilitarian approach to consumption. A second reason relates to the resurgence of interest in symbolic interaction. This perspective was a natural point of entrée for understanding consumption and the symbolic characteristics of commodities. Research by Blumer (1969) on fashion, Stone (1962) on apparel, and Goffman (1951, 1959) on prop management and the symbolic properties of products reflected an early concern with the role of material goods in social life.
The sociology of consumer behavior is a comparatively new area of research. The flood of recent research is testimony to a new and vibrant stream of scholarly activity— much of it at the intersection of culture and the economy. The area addresses the entire range of issues related to consumer behavior: Why are there so many commodities? Who uses them? How are they made and where are they bought? As in many new areas of academic interest, research journals are not crowded with numerous, competing paradigms. Emphasis instead is on exploring the role of consumer behavior in all aspects of social life. To organize this review, I use the central paradigm that has emerged over the last decade—the model of a consumer society. Consumer societies are defined as societies where identity problems are resolved through commodities obtained from the marketplace. The hallmark of this paradigm is an emphasis on the interdependency between various parts of the market and between markets and consumers.
This review is organized into three sections: the first considers how commodities are used as resources in identity formation and incorporated into the social and cultural lives of individuals; the second and third sections explore the market’s role in producing and distributing goods. Research reviews are testimony to an academic area’s coming of age; several have recently been published on consumption and interested readers can consult them for a slightly different overview of this field (Frenzen, Hirsch, and Zerillo 1994; Zukin and Maguire 2004; Arnould and Thompson 2005; Zelizer 2005).
Goods in the Social and Cultural World
More than a century ago, Veblen ( 1953) outlined the fundamental ideas for understanding consumption: consumption is social (it is influenced by others) and cultural (it is information conveyed to others). Contemporary scholars have taken the social and cultural aspects of consumption and set them against a backdrop of a changing society, which has altered the traditional bases of identity. Rapid and deep-seated social change, according to Giddens (1991), results in a “reflexive project” where individuals continually construct self-narratives, autobiographies of sorts, to anchor themselves in a new world. This new world involves not only rapid industrialization, postindustrialization, and urbanization but also globalization. Globalization, according to Frank and Meyer (2002:93), diminishes the sovereignty of the nation-state and legitimates the “tastes, interests, and needs” of individuals. Consumer habits are critical to these needs and critical to identity. Commodities help locate the self in social and cultural space. The market supplies the cultural resources—the commodities essential to this process. At the same time, consumer goods are no panacea for the risks and uncertainties of the modern world. In contrast with older and more stable social orders, an uneasy tension exists between the construction of individualized identities and the market’s supply of commodities. This tension— that the fit between identity and commodity is never exact or completely right—is part of the meaning conveyed by Giddens’s (1991) “reflexive project.”
Cultural Distinctions: Product Use and Personal Identity
In premodern societies, “appearance was largely standardized in terms of traditional criteria” (Giddens 1991:99). But classification takes place differently today, with identities more individualized and roles increasingly diverse; multiple roles intersect breeding conflict and ambiguity in answering the question “who am I” (Frank and Meyer 2002; Callero 2003). This thread—that identity issues are more complicated than in the past—is found throughout the basic research on status and commodity use. Young persons are concerned not only with being on the right side of the generational divide but also with the approval of their peers (Miles 1996; Freitas et al. 1997). Women at work are anxious about balancing their femininity with the professional demands on the job (Rubinstein 1995; Kimle and Damhorst 1997). Middle-class blacks are concerned about race and troubled about distancing themselves from the negative image of an impoverished minority (Lamont and Molnar 2001). In each case, consumer goods or lifestyles related to consumption provide ammunition in the contemporary struggle with identity. Commodities are liaisons to diverse cultural categories, but particularly to age, gender, and race. Young men wind up buying the right athletic shoes, even though they are otherwise not quite useful for them (Miles 1996). Women cultivate a style of business dress to bridge the tension between fashion, conservatism, and sexuality (Kimle and Damhorst 1997). Affluent blacks conspicuously consume, a script suggested by advertising interests (Lamont and Molnar 2001). In each case, commodities clarify ambiguities in personal and social identity, that is, in the way people see themselves and in turn the way they hope they are seen by others.
Identity is a project. Detailed ethnographies indicate that problems associated with identity heighten anxiety (Thompson and Hirshman 1995; Freitas et al. 1997). Furthermore, personal change common in contemporary societies involves role transitions that escalate identity problems and alters consumption. Research indicates that individuals use different commodities as they move from one role to another—moving to college (Silver 1996), for example, or getting divorced (McAlexander 1991). New commodities help the transition; they allow anticipatory socialization to explore new roles. Cook and Kaiser (2004), for example, show how cosmetics and related products are used by young girls to explore conceptions of womanhood. Arvidsson’s (2001) research discusses the role of motor scooters in the quest for self-realization among Italian youth. Commodities not only satisfy stable desires but also provide for the exploration of new roles and new identities (Solomon 1983).
Straightforward as this research may be, it is a decided theoretical advance over previous views. In contrast to economists, the emphasis is on use rather than purchase. In contrast to neo-Marxists, the emphasis is on the value of commodities for individuals rather than capitalists. Most important, it also advances the way contemporary sociologists view how products are used. Consider, for example, Goffman’s (1959) imagery: people are on stage, handle life situationally and manage whatever props are at their disposal to effect their presentation of self. On stage, props are used; off stage, they may be abandoned. In much sociological research on consumerism, however, the division between on stage and off stage is unclear. Sometimes, commodities can be easily discarded, as when teenagers experiment with cosmetics (Cook and Kaiser 2004). In other instances, commodities are not just props in a staged play, they are personal investments that are extensions of our self (Belk 1988). Much research argues that commodities play an important role in our life and may be imbued with a sacred status. Mementoes and family pictures are valued well beyond their market worth. Cars are washed, polished, and prominently displayed. Perfumes or jewelry are thought to exert power over others. If these possessions are part of any drama, they are the drama of our lives—but certainly not always or necessarily props to be discarded with ease (Wallendorf and Arnould 1988; Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989; Kaiser, Freeman, and Chandler 1993; Otnes and Lowrey 1993).
Beyond their relevance for personal identity, commodities integrate individuals into collective life. In the tradition of Durkheimian sociology, commodities reflect both distance and cohesion, separating “we” from “they.”
This is documented in the extensive literature on gift giving that updates the classic work on gifts and exchange (Mauss 1954; Gouldner 1960; Titmuss 1971; Cheal 1988; Otnes and Beltramini 1996). Gifts are exchanged according to prescribed rituals. In Caplow’s (1984) Middletown research, gift giving at Christmas is first and foremost a public occasion. Gifts are synchronized to suit the role relationships between givers and receivers. Gifts identify the intimate circle of family and friends, but they can also be used to identify everyone else. This is possible because the social distance implied by gifts is more nuanced than the sharp binary distinction between “we” and “they.” In Middletown, intimacy is measured by the metric of the market economy: the more costly the gift, the more intimate the relationship. In this view, the variable cost of gifts distinguishes not only kin from nonkin but also everyone in between.
There is also much research on the proliferation of subcultures—testimony to the role differentiation of contemporary society. Here again, products clarify ambiguities, mark boundaries, and anchor persons into the diversity of social life. They provide the cultural capital necessary for entrée into the intimate circle that subcultures afford (Lamont and Lareau 1988). Scholars have written extensively about various subcultures: gays (Higgins 1998), health food faddists (Thompson and Troester 2002), participants in farmers’ markets (McGrath, Sherry, and Heisley 1993), and devotees of Macintosh computers or Saab automobiles (Muˇniz and O’Guinn 2000).
Schouten and McAlexander’s (1995) research on bikers illustrates much of what this research is about. These authors use the concept of a subculture of consumption: “a distinctive subgroup of society that self-selects on the basis of a shared commitment to a particular product class, brand, or consumption activity” (Schouten and McAlexander 1995:43). They introduce this concept to illustrate how bikers use their Harley-Davidsons to express countercultural lifestyles. What is interesting about these bikers is not only the centrality of the bikes in their lives but also the way bikes become the medium for social interaction. The relationships among bikers depend on the bike; it is as if material objects displace individuals as partners in interaction—a process Knorr Cetina (1997) refers to as “objectualization.”
The Language of Commodities
Commodities, as formerly noted, are cultural artifacts critical in the presentation of self. Commodities communicate cultural meaning to others, signifying who you are and what you are about. In Sahlins’s (1976) view, consumer goods reproduce “the culture into a system of objects” (p. 179). But there is no simple equivalence between the particular commodities used and the way they are understood by others. This is not surprising. Designers, advertisers, and consumers give commodities different meanings. Few social scientists believe any symbolic codes are universally understood. Goffman’s (1971) concept of a tie-sign suggests an alternate way to think about this problem. Commodities, in his view, vary in agreed upon meanings; there is more agreement on some commodities than others (see also Rubinstein 1995: 191–205). Tie-signs are easily read and their meanings widely understood. Obvious examples are uniforms, highly gendered clothing, or extreme countercultural expressions—as in the clothing of punks or the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. In other instances, however, meaning is simply more ambiguous.
One apparent factor contributing to ambiguity in meaning is that persons may use similar objects for different purposes—as Bourdieu (1984:177–200) suggests for attitudes toward meals or as Halle (1992) suggests for the evaluation of art (see also Hebdige 1979). Different meanings are largely a function of individuals occupying different roles in diverse social groups. The disparity between the use of a particular commodity and its interpretation by others has been widely recognized by consumer theorists. Davis (1992) suggests that commodities are polysemic, part of an unstable language of meaning. Campbell (1996) recommends sharply distinguishing objects from use, arguing that the two should not be confused as equivalents. Holt (1998) argues for a more holistic approach to consumption, analyzing constellations of consumer behavior rather than focusing on any given product. Symbolic interactionists conclude that ambiguous communication is inherent in social interaction; only interpersonal discourse allows individuals to attain mutual understanding (Stone 1962).
The disparity in understanding also poses problems for actors. In Schouten and McAlexander’s (1995) research, not everyone who rode a bike was considered by Hell’s Angels types to be part of the hard core; many were weekend bikers, frequently executives—but decidedly neither carefree nor countercultural. Needless to add, weekend bikers were objects of disdain, ridiculed by hard core cyclists. But ridicule is the cost of dependence on products that the market supplies. Access to the market is unregulated. Anyone with the resources and inclination can buy almost anything they want—even if what they want is a badge of membership in a subculture where they are unwelcome. Commodities consequently provide a rough guide to classify individuals, but precise inferences are more problematic.
Social Class and Cultural Distinctions
Pierre Bourdieu (1984), in his influential book on Distinction, suggests that commodities in contemporary society provide the cultural capital to sustain class rank. He believes that incorporated into the microlevel environment of individuals—the habitus—are social dispositions relating what is vulgar, what is distinctive, and what provides honor and esteem. These mental sets are, in Bourdieu’s view, class based. In the nineteenth-century class was a major determinant of lifestyles, as both Simmel ( 1957) and Veblen ( 1953) observed. Scholars however have questioned the connection between class and consumer behavior in contemporary societies. They question whether status has replaced class and whether lifestyles are anchored in economic hierarchies.
The role of class in consumption continues to be debated (Lamont and Fournier 1992; Lamont et al. 1996; Kingston 2000; Grusky and Weeden 2001). In one sense, class is undeniably influential in consumption: income cannot be ignored and education, particularly as it relates to literacy, likewise may be relevant (Wallendorf 2001). There is a further question, however: Do classes resemble status groups with similar lifestyles and consumer habits? Holt (1998) argues that they do; using a broad definition of consumption, he finds that upper classes more likely value aesthetics than function and authentic commodities than mass-produced commodities. Others suggest, however, that class today no longer distinguishes lifestyles. Halle’s (1992) research on art in middle-and working-class homes shows few significant differences. Turner and Edmund (2002) indicate that Australian elites were not terribly interested in highbrow culture. Lamont’s (1992) research suggests that Bourdieu’s observations on class distinction may more accurately describe France than the United States. How should one interpret conflicting findings on class? Two conclusions, I believe, are warranted. First, class and consumption require more refined analysis to disentangle important nuances in consumption (Crompton 1996; Holt 1998; Grusky and Weeden 2001). Second, it is likely that class remains influential, although its importance probably has diminished in more recent times.
An additional theoretical issue is whether Veblen’s observations on conspicuous consumption remain valid today. This is a frequent topic in social commentary. In her book Do Americans Shop Too Much?, Juliet Schor (2000) reargues Veblen’s critique by noting that “the lifestyles of the upper middle class and the rich have become a more salient point of reference for people throughout the income distribution. . . . Luxury, rather than mere comfort, is a widespread aspiration” (p. 8). Luxury products are indeed available—and may be more widely distributed than they were in the past (Twitchell 1999). At the same time, other evidence suggests that conspicuous consumption may not accurately characterize American buying habits. For example, fashions in apparel are fragmented today along lines unrelated to upper-class influence (Crane 2000). Gartman (1991) argues that product designs frequently mask rather than accentuate class differences; his analysis of automobiles provides much support for this position. Furthermore, powerhouse retailers like Wal-Mart and Kmart and McDonalds hardly encourage conspicuous consumption. Heffetz’s (2004) analysis of the Bureau of Labor’s Consumer Expenditure Survey indicates that people do spend more on items that are highly visible to others—jewelry, cars, or clothing, for example. At the same time, the extra money spent on luxury purchases is not substantial; it accounts for 12 percent of all spending and is confined to the top half of the income distribution.
Luxury is widely ballyhooed in the mass media (O’Guinn and Shrum 1997). But fascination with the lifestyles of the very rich does not mean consumers desire luxury products. An alternate way of looking at conspicuous consumption, however, may be more plausible: to see it as prominent in particular circumstances—as when minorities are trying to break barriers of discrimination. McCracken (1988:96–102), for example, sees business dress for women as emulating the authority of men at work. Likewise, Lamont and Molnar (2001) argue that middleclass blacks may consume conspicuously to distance themselves from more deprived classes. Class may still explain who uses what, and conspicuous consumption may surface in particular instances. Nonetheless, Veblen’s ideas are probably not the best way to explain modern consumption.
All this research—on class, subcultures, commodities, and identities—shows how products are used and incorporated into the lives of individuals. The consumer society paradigm also suggests that consumers depend on markets for resolving ambiguities in identity. In Appadurai’s (1986) phrase, commodities have social lives; they have histories, origins, and endpoints. Markets are the arenas where these histories play out: in the technical details of production, in the ways commodities acquire symbolic identities, and in the distribution system that moves products from factories to retail stores and into the hands and homes of consumers. The next major sections consider two parts of consumer markets: the markets that make commodities and the markets that distribute them.
Consumer Markets 1: Producing Goods, Constructing Symbols
Product Diversity: The Case of Fashion
In The Second Industrial Divide, Piore and Sabel (1984:189) comment on the “apparent shift in favor of diversity” during the 1970s. Diversity refers to product diversity, that is, the proliferation of commodities differing in styles, colors, and shapes. Diversified goods have similar uses but differ in symbolic meaning; they appeal to consumers with different tastes. According to consumer theorists, product diversity has grown exponentially over the last 40 to 50 years. Growth in product diversity raises an intriguing and important question about consumer markets: Why markets have so many products? The answers given in the literature draw primarily from research on fashions in women’s apparel. Though confined to a single area of consumption, the literature on fashion in women’s apparel offers insight into how theorists think about production markets and about the demand for product diversity. In this subsection, I first review the historical accounts that theorists use as a backdrop for their ideas and then critically examine the explanations for diversity they provide.
The historical accounts of fashion describe a market in transition. In the mid-nineteenth century up to the years following World War II, women’s fashions were dominated by a system of haute couture. Key manufacturers and designers such as the House of Chanel or Dior were part of a centralized and hierarchical structure in women’s fashions. Styles were relatively homogeneous and changed little from year to year. The designs were initially aimed at an upper-class clientele, but were widely sold to others. In the United States, manufacturers copied elite fashions and sold them at different prices to women varying in income; this practice, in Barber and Lobel’s (1953) view, allowed upper-class styles to trickle down to middle- and workingclass women—in much the way Veblen predicted.
By the 1970s, the haute couture system diminished in importance. Davis (1992:138–45) described new, emergent fashions as democratized, polymorphous, and pluralistic. In the haute couture model, fashion diffused from the top down but, according to Crane (2000), fashions began to diffuse from the bottom up—with designers increasingly attuned to diverse subcultures, including minorities, the young, and the working class. As important as the fragmentation of fashion was the speed at which fashions changed. In the haute couture system, styles changed infrequently. In the more pluralistic system, fashions changed more rapidly, as much as five to six times a year or more (Gereffi 1994).
This history is instructive. Fashion products diversified in two ways: first, by becoming more heterogeneous and fragmented—catering to a wider range of tastes and interests; second, by accelerating the pace of change—moving styles in and out of vogue several or more times a year. Why this explosion in product diversity, in the demand for new products and symbols? Many of the explanations offered draw on the very same ideas used in discussions of identity—the increase in heterogeneity and complexity in contemporary societies. According to Crane (2000), new demands emerge in concert with the “fragmentation of contemporary societies” and “the greater complexity of relationships between social groups” (p. 166). Davis (1992) ties fashion change to ambivalence about the self that a “more complex and heterogeneous society” accentuates (p. 24). Other researchers attribute recent fashion change to postmodernity and the breakdown of uniform cultural codes (Kaiser, Nagasawa, and Hutton 1991).
Popular as these explanations may be, they are not entirely satisfying on all accounts. In the first place, more standardized, less diverse fashions are not necessarily incompatible with the differentiation or individualized identities that consumers seek. Consumers, for example, can express individuality in how they put certain looks together or in the accessories they use. Postmodern thought sees individuality shaped not only by using unique products but also by the eclectic use of standardized products. Similarly, Giddens (1991) notes that “mass produced clothing still allows individuals to decide selectively on styles of dress” (p. 200). Individualism may be crafted not only by using distinctive products but also by using mass products in a distinctive way. Holt’s (1997) research suggests that individuals can and do creatively use whatever is at hand to craft unique lifestyles.
An additional concern is that many of the traditional explanations appear not so much incorrect as incomplete. Little is mentioned about fashion change in areas other than women’s apparel—limited though this literature may be (see, e.g., Gartman 1991; Slater 2002; Postrel 2003; Molotch 2003). Have products diversified at the same pace in these other areas? Traditional explanations also lack specificity—they inadequately account for the way trends in complexity and heterogeneity are differently experienced. Traditional explanations, for example, slight two obvious and related events important for understanding the fragmentation in women’s fashions: the wider participation of women in the paid labor force and the rise of feminism. Both events flourished during the sixties and generally empowered women. Increased autonomy, but also increased obligations connected to work, translates into new demands not addressed by upper-class fashions.
The altered status of women suggests that it may be more profitable to think about the demand for new products as a consequence not of changing roles—but of the development of new roles and new social and cultural spaces that women began to occupy.
In spite of these reservations, increased diversity probably characterizes the products in many consumer markets. Simple as this observation appears, an important issue is at stake. Fashion means that products varying in symbolic meaning are vehicles for competition. In classical economics, comparable goods are chosen on the basis of price. But consumer research suggests differently: as products diversify, product competition increases and price competition declines. “Product differentiation means that goods are only imperfect substitutes for each other, so buyers can no longer make direct price comparisons” (Carruthers and Babb 2000:36). Several writers see this increase in product competition as an important turning point in the dynamics of consumer markets. Lash and Urry (1987), for example, suggest that contemporary economies are notable for the production of symbols. In a similar vein, Featherstone (1992) discusses the aestheticization of everyday life as a force in mass consumption and Postrel (2003) identifies aesthetics as remaking commerce.
Finally, what about consumers? How have they reacted to fragmentation in the market for fashions? If identity is a project then consumers ought to be ever at the vigil for new fashions and new styles (Kellner 1992). In fact, diverse fashions appear to promote detachment and anxiety. Research has shown women to be active agents (rather than passive victims) in consuming fashions. Brickell’s (2002) study shows how resistance to fashion trends develops. Thompson and Haytko (1997) see fashion as a tool kit—interpreted, accepted, or dismissed according to the needs and goals of individuals. College students consult fashion magazines but do not necessarily follow the styles they promote; also, “the percentage of women . . . interested in fashionable styles has steadily declined” (Crane 2000:168).
At the same time, the view of carefree consumers dabbling in fashions has limits. One limit is that fragmented fashion creates ambiguity. In Davis’s (1992) view, the rapid pace of change and the “onrush of new fashions” mean that few persons know exactly what is “in” and what is “out” (p. 108). Consuming fashion is emotionally charged. Carefree though they appear, consumers report risks, uncertainty, and anxiety in selecting what to wear (Chua 1992; Thompson and Hirschman 1995). Having many alternatives does not mean decisions are easy to make (Schwartz 2004).
Manufacturing Product Diversity: Flexible Production and International Trade
Consumer markets also must manufacture diverse products. How is this done? Slater and Tonkiss (2001) succinctly capture the traditional argument regarding the manufacture of diverse, highly individualized products: “New technological . . . opportunities were emerging that refocused the logic of production away from mass manufacture and mass consumption to flexible responsive production of more differentiated ranges of goods to ever more culturally differentiated consumers” (p. 179). The logic of production in Slater and Tonkiss’s statement refers to the growth of postfordism or flexible production (Piore and Sable 1984; Harvey 1989). Under fordism, machines dedicated to a single task mass produce goods; under postfordism, computerized machines produce goods diverse in colors, styles, and sizes. Hence the connection between product diversity and flexible technology.
The link between “culturally differentiated consumers” and flexible production makes sense—but two points need clarification. The first is that factories (and industries) do not neatly fall into categories of prefordist, fordist, and postfordist production (Vallas 1999). Factories may combine prefordist production with flexible technology to make diverse products. In the apparel industry, for example, computerized technology is widely used in the design and preassembly stages of production; but to actually construct garments, workers frequently sew by hand or use sewing machines (Fine and Leopold 1993; Mather 1993). Thus, product diversity can also result from demands on unskilled workers to engage in multiple tasks that produce different commodities. Taplin (1995, 1996) argues that labor not technology is the flexible resource in apparel production; his research on apparel factories documents how unskilled, low-wage labor is used to accommodate the changing demands of manufacturers.
A second complication refers to the geography of production. Recent research has emphasized global production in addition to flexible technology as contributing to product diversity. Gereffi (1994), for example, suggests that product diversity is facilitated by subcontracting production across a large and diverse pool of factories scattered across the globe. Subcontracting increases flexibility, allowing manufacturers to minimize their investments and search for production facilities to suit their needs. Gereffi’s (1994) research focuses on commodity chains that coordinate production across a decentralized and international network of factories (see also Hassler 2003). In his view, the global scope (rather than scale) of production is critical for the manufacture of diverse products. More factories are simply available to make more and different commodities. Consistent with Gereffi’s view, Broda and Weinstein’s (2004) analysis of import data indicates that international trade has increased product diversity in the United States by as much as fourfold in recent years.
Advertising, Brands, and the Cultural Economy
A final step in this review of the production market is the symbolic meaning that diverse products acquire. Designers and manufacturers suggest meanings. Commodities also may acquire symbolic meanings through use. But advertising is the principle way by which products acquire meaning. According to McCracken (1988:71–89), advertising is a process of transference: Symbols created or taken from the culture are used by advertisers to situate a commodity in cultural space.
The activities of advertisers, including their strategies and negotiations with clients, have been amply discussed. Advertisers meet with manufacturers, identify a market niche in the context of competing products, and then— focusing on particular characteristics of their product— construct a scenario linking their product to a situation that consumers desire (McCracken 1988:71–89; Hennion and Méadel 1989; Slater 2002). Products thus gain an identity, and competing products with similar uses are differentiated in meaning. Does this work—that is, do ads sell? “The conventional wisdom,” as Alan Warde (2002b) has noted, is that “producers are unable to manipulate wants through advertising” (p. 11). This is generally true. Ads carry information, but consumers are not blank slates; they have much information and are subject to multiple influences. Countless studies show that individuals are differentially receptive to an ad’s message—contingent on things such as their attitude toward a product or their receptivity to new information (Hirschman and Thompson 1997; Adaval 2003; Brinol, Petty, and Tormala 2004).
Many of these studies, however, miss the broader influence of advertising on consumers. Branded products illustrate what this influence is about. Brands are the primary way advertisers handle product diversity. Products are symbolically differentiated from each other by membership in different families of commodities: Dell computers, Ann Taylor suits, Panasonic televisions. Brands are, in part, constructed by advertisers and manufacturers. They are vessels that advertisers use to convey the symbolic meaning of products. Studies indicate that brands are among the most important ways consumers evaluate quality, even though they may not buy brands if price is a factor (Holt 2004; Zukin 2004). The more popular brands are, the more successful ads tend to be (Campbell and Keller 2003). Some evidence also suggests that ads are more successful when products are similar in use (Hennion and Méadel 1989:194).
Much research also indicates that it is the brand—not just the product, its style or quality—that is crucial in consumption. When presented with a choice between two identical products—one identified by a well-known or prestigious brand and one that is not—consumers uniformly select the product with the well-known brand name (Behling and Wilch 1988; Hoyer and Brown 1990; McClure et al. 2004). This research suggests a simple but startling conclusion: Individuals are consuming symbols as well as products.
Brands are directed to market niches—to countercultural groups, to a middle class interested in reliability, to yuppies keen on fashion and style. At the same time, manufacturers frequently try to expand sales to other audiences. Therein lies the difficulty in making ads successful tools of persuasion: how to convey the symbolic value of a product to different market segments. It is well known that persons with different backgrounds interpret mass media messages differently (Shively 1992). It is also the case that persons with different backgrounds interpret ads differently (Grier and Brumbaugh 1999). Advertisers experience much difficulty in customizing ads for diverse audiences (Kates and Goh 2003). For example, attempts to present different ads to market segments may be transparent—and a cause of resistance to an ad’s message. The Hell’s Angels types in Schouten and McAlexander’s (1995) research resented the ads Harley-Davidson addressed to executive bikers as well as to “Dykes on Bikes.” du Gay (1997) indicates that Sony’s initial attempt to customize ads for its Walkman was unsuccessful; sales escalated, however, when the ads’ symbols were integrated into the Walkman’s design.
From a sociological perspective, advertising presents an interesting dilemma. An elementary understanding of the self is that it develops in response to existing cultural frames. Does advertising supply these frames—at least in part? Is it possible, as some scholars have suggested, that advertising profoundly affects our culture and psyche— including the trajectory of our identity projects (Ewen 1977; Williamson 1978)? Several case studies indicate the considerable influence of ads on lifestyles. Prominent here is De Beer’s promotion of diamonds as the essential accessory to marriage (Epstein 1982). Otnes and Pleck (2003) trace the rise of the costly wedding to advertising in bridal magazines. Korzeniewicz (1994) attributes Nike’s success to its ads fueling the boom in health and fitness. Lamont and Molnar (2001) link conspicuous consumption in the black middle class to advertisers. This research is cause for thought and concern. Do existing theories of identity and social change slight the role of advertising and oversimplify explanations of consumption? More research is needed on this important issue.
Consumer Markets 2: Shopping and the Distribution of Goods
Retail trade is the other key market in the consumer society. To Marx ( 1990), retailers were the petty bourgeoisie, incidental to the major forces of production. By contrast, retailers today are more likely to be major corporations. Corporate growth has prompted scholars to reconsider the role of retailing in the economy. They suggest that retailers are a new source of power in the marketplace. They also argue that growth and power have been used to transform shopping, to make it pleasant and entertaining—thereby stimulating sales and enthusiasm for commodities.
The Retail Revolution
All observers concur that large corporations increasingly dominate retail trade (Mills 1951; Chandler 1962; Bluestone et al. 1981; du Gay 1993). Mills (1951:166–69) characterized the “big bazaar” as large, monolithic, and relentlessly in pursuit of growth, whereas du Gay (1993:569) concluded that the retail industry is now “dominated and controlled by large companies.” In the 1960s, retail firms with 100 or more stores accounted for 15 percent of all sales as compared with the 40 percent they control today (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1966, 2001).
Paralleling the growth of the firm is the growth of the store itself. Stores are increasingly able to stock the diverse commodities essential to individualized identity projects. Many stores today are big box retail outlets: large discount stores, department stores, supermarkets, and “category killers” specializing in a range of related products (such as Home Depot or Office Max). From the retailer’s perspective, big stores are more economical to run and sell products more efficiently than “mom and pop stores” (Hahn 2000). Store growth is substantial. Mills (1951:166–69) estimated that in the 1950s, Macy’s flagship store stocked 400,000 items; today, flagship stores carry between 1 and 2 million items (Abernathy 1999:41). According to Walsh (1993:9), supermarkets in the 1950s and 1960s carried 5000 to 8000 items as compared with the 40,000 to 60,000 items they carry today (Abernathy 1999:41).
Ritzer (1993) and others argue that the growth and concentration of retail firms provide resources for rationalizing operations (Noyelle 1987; Gereffi 1994). Large firms are more sophisticated in transporting goods and managing inventory. Furthermore, large retailers order more goods and bargain more effectively with suppliers for lower prices. Volume sales also reduce costs. These factors, commonly associated with the retail revolution, make large firms more competitive. Additionally, the advent of shopping malls in the 1960s and 1970s accentuated competition in two other ways: increasing the number of large apparel chains and providing an outlet for these chains to sell niche fashions nationwide.
It is also the case that retailers are more vertically integrated, more involved in manufacturing than was true in the fifties and sixties. Gereffi (1994) speaks of fashion retailers as “buyer driven” and Murray (1989) argues that new computer technology allows retailers to better track consumer demand and regulate supply. Blumer (1969) suggests that fashion is a sequence of collective selection in which key gatekeepers—designers, retail buyers, marketing analysts—decide what looks good and what does not. These gatekeepers are increasingly prominent in retail chains. Chains are more attuned to and attentive to the demands of their clientele. Market research has become significant in producing styles. Crane (2000) notes that success in the market depends on being “able to identify lifestyles that resonate with the public” (p. 168). Rubinstein (1995) similarly observes that “the profitable way of doing business . . . is to study the customers, find out what they want, and make and market it” (p. 237). As retailers became more knowledgeable about their clientele, they are also able to create new specialty niches—as illustrated in the recent growth of markets for children and young girls (Cook 2004; Cook and Kaiser 2004).
The dominance of retail chains has led researchers to conclude that “the balance of relative power has shifted firmly to the side of the retailer” (du Gay 1993:570) (Crewe and Davenport 1992; Wrigley 1992). While size does contribute to power, this conclusion must be qualified in several ways. In the first place, though the independent single-unit retail firm is by no means dominant, neither is it a relic. Independent single-unit stores today comprise 60 percent of the total number of all stores and account for about 40 percent of all sales (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2001:307). Furthermore, in sectors where personalized services are in demand, chains may be less prominent (Stillman 2003). In the restaurant industry, for example, 70 percent of all businesses are single, individually owned stores and account for about 50 percent of sales (Nelson 2001). Finally, in some sectors, automobiles and housing, for example, manufacturers tightly control retail operations.
In the second place, retail power may not translate into higher profits—at least when compared with the profits of manufacturers (Messinger and Narasimhan 1995). Ailawadi, Borin, and Farris (1995) report that only WalMart has eroded manufacturers’ profits but other retailers have not. Bloom and Perry (2001) suggest a further qualification: Large manufacturers do better when dealing with Wal-Mart but smaller ones suffer.
A third issue involves the view of the retail revolution as a technological transformation (Noyelle 1987). It is true that large chains increasingly use computer technology to monitor inventory, consumer demand, and sales. It is also the case that retailers are more productive than in the past (Sieling, Friedman, and Dumas 2001). Productivity, however, is a function of both technology and the way labor is used. Popular brands reduce labor costs through selfservice sales—where consumers rather than sales personnel “reach for the product” (Twitchell 1999:189). Self-service sales may be “the single most important factor in containing labour costs” in retail trade (du Gay 1993:572). Unfortunately, self-service strategies have been slighted in understanding how large chains have become productive, competitive, and powerful.
Much research suggests that in addition to monitoring inventory and sales, retailers have tried to alter the experience of shoppers. Their techniques go well beyond the dazzling display of goods department stores used in the past (Williams 1982). Shopping malls today commonly have movie theaters, themed restaurants, children’s rides, and skating rinks to entertain customers. Control mechanisms are integrated into the design of shopping centers; they range from the placement of escalators to the use of lighting to the mix of stores. All are designed to increase exposure to products, lengthen the time spent shopping and stimulate impulse buying. Recent research points to hightech innovations using media and entertainment environments of moving light, upbeat sound, and multiple video screens—frequently inviting consumers to participate in sports-related fantasies (Sherry et al. 2001; Kozinets et al. 2002, 2004).
Ritzer (2005) sees these innovations as new marketing controls used to revolutionize consumption in a “disenchanted world.” He sees malls as “cathedrals of consumption,” both rationalized and sophisticated in their influence on consumers. Malls are important; they contain the retail chains vital in lifestyle shopping (Shields 1992). Much research suggests that a store’s image is a significant source of attraction in shopping (Baker, Grewal, and Parasuraman 1994; Zimmer and Golden 1988). Research findings for malls are comparable. Consumers who find malls entertaining and exciting also indicate that they are eager to return (Finn and Louviere 1996; Wakefield and Baker 1998). A small number of consumers use shopping to relax. Not surprisingly, more utilitarian shoppers are less likely to visit malls (Roy 1994). The themed environment in many malls is designed to encourage fantasies (Gottdiener 1997). Research indicates that fantasizing about material goods is common (Fournier and Guiry 1993) and further that individuals who indulge in such fantasies likely shop frequently and compulsively (O’Guinn and Faber 1989). From a sociological perspective, fantasy allows consumers to play with and explore different presentations of self.
Shopping is also seen as time to spend with family and friends (Arnold and Reynolds 2003). If shopping formerly was (women’s) work, it is now also used for entertainment and leisure. When consumers do shop to relax, they are less likely to consider price (Wakefield and Inman 2003). Shopping with friends is popular with teenagers; it increases their enjoyment and also the money they spend (Mangleburg, Doney, and Bristol 2004). Social shopping has two additional, though seemingly contradictory effects. When in a group, shoppers seek more variety in their choices to impress others with their individuality (Ratner, Kahn, and Kahneman 1999; Ariely and Levav 2000). Shoppers also solicit advice from their shopping partners on whether their selections are acceptable and appropriate (Chua 1992). Shopping with others thus provides both the individuality and the collective connections that Simmel ( 1957) saw as essential to fashion and consumption.
In summary, many shoppers seem to mirror the intended impact of the mall’s design. They see shopping as leisure rather than work, are entertained at the mall, and will likely return there to shop again. At the same time, it is unfair to conclude that most shoppers resemble the stereotypical “shop ’til I drop” consumer. The wider context here is that materialism is not higher in the United States than other countries (Ger and Belk 1999) and that spending on commodities has not increased over the past—the reverse is in fact the case (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2005).
A more accurate summary is that retailing reflects a mélange of stores and a variety of shoppers. It may be a retail world revolutionized or transformed—but the transformation is partial and incomplete. Shoppers buy not only in retail malls but also from family, friends, and neighbors (Frenzen and Davis 1990; DiMaggio and Louch 1998). While they spend more in the company of friends, shoppers also stress thrift as a virtue (Miller 1998; Zukin 2004). Much shopping, particularly twice-a-week visits to supermarkets, hardly qualifies as lifestyle shopping (Miller 1997). Furthermore, alongside those who shop to relax are utilitarian shoppers; they visit malls infrequently but when they do, it is to buy something rather than to be entertained (Bloch, Ridgway, and Dawson 1994; Roy 1994).
The paradigm of a consumer society is more than an umbrella covering the diversity of consumer research. Unlike neo-Marxist views, the paradigm highlights the satisfactions and pleasures of commodities. Unlike utilitarian views, the paradigm highlights the symbolism commodities possess. Unlike mechanistic views, the paradigm highlights the interdependency of consumers and markets, while at the same time seeing individuals as active agents and culture as integral to social life.
This paradigm has been advanced by an enormous resurgence of research—documenting the importance of consumer behavior without celebrating consumerism itself. Policy issues have not been central to the consumer society paradigm, but the problems of consumer credit (Ritzer 1995), the environment (Wilk 2001), political protest (Holt 2002), and discrimination associated with race, class, and gender have all been addressed (Caplovitz 1963; Ayres and Siegelman 1995). Common to these policy concerns is an indictment of the unfettered consumer market associated with capitalism.
All paradigms have flaws, and the consumer society is no exception. Consumption is important in contemporary societies; but societies are too complex to be called consumer societies any more than they can be called industrial societies, postindustrial societies, or postmodern societies (Kumar 1995; Warde 2002a). By describing societies as consumer societies, the paradigm glosses over important variations critical to explore. For example, much is known about consumption and identity but, surprisingly, little about those who have resolved or otherwise minimized identity issues. How and what do these individuals consume? Similar problems of omission plague the other key term in the paradigm: the market. Consumer research overwhelmingly focuses on apparel and food. By contrast, other products have been slighted (though not necessarily ignored). Some critics have argued that commodities vary in their relevance to identity (Ilmonen 2001). Others suggest that markets operate differently for each commodity (Fine and Leopold 1993). Regardless of the merit of these criticisms, a typology of commodities might be a useful way to study many different commodities and enrich the framework researchers use.
In conclusion, researchers of consumption have fought an uphill and increasingly successful battle. They have rescued an area long relegated to the wasteland of sociological research. They also have joined in an interdisciplinary effort including cultural studies, anthropology, economics, marketing, and retailing. But the stigma associated with studying consumption in sociology may still persist; at this time, the very top research journals in American sociology infrequently publish research on consumer behavior. The challenge in the next decades will be to increase this area’s prominence and bring to it the attention it deserves.
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