Do you buy it?

I’m standing in my underwear in front of a full-length mirror in a stranger’s home, surrounded by racks of boho dresses, printed rompers and lace crop tops.

“Hun, have you got something on?” comes a voice from the backyard.

“One minute!” I call from inside the house as I peel a dark midi dress off its hanger and pull it on. The rapping of paws against the wooden sliding door grows more intense. Tiga, a regal, dusty brown mongrel, watches me impatiently as I struggle to get my bony frame into the tangle of viscose. In the mirror, the fabric tumbles over my shoulders weakly, losing the curve of my body somewhere along the way before catching itself abruptly below my knees.

Hastily, I slide the door open and Tiga darts out, only unfurling into a more dignified posture and slowing to a trot when he approaches the centre of the living room. Tiga distracts me and I don’t notice Kara Bensley-Austin entering the store room from the back.

“How is it?” she asks, and I swivel around to see the energetic Aussie who’s trying not to make a judgement about the way I look on my behalf though it’s probably clear to the stylist-cum-fashion entrepreneur that the deep v-neck does nothing for me.

“I don’t have the boobs to pull this off,” I whine to her and without missing a beat, she hands me several other pieces she’s brought in for me to try. Aside from the midi dress, every item of clothing she picks for me- from the neon crochet shorts to the kimono-sleeved lace dress –  is flattering. After several minutes of shamelessly admiring myself in the mirror, I’m left with a pile of clothing to choose from and not enough money to spend.

From the assortment of apparel, I take just two items. Because I am frugal like that. But more so because it’s the Christmas season and I’ve been spending far too dangerously. While paying for my purchases in Kara’s living room, I confess feeling guilty that I’ve just been shopping on the job. Lay Peng, the PR rep who invited me over dismisses my concerns. “It’s past office hours!” she declares, kindly. She expresses that she is overcome with the same desire to buy something every time she comes here, which is pretty often.

At this moment, Kara sweeps into the room with the goods neatly wrapped in printed paper packed in a cute drawstring bag designed for The WYLD Shop and hands it to me. She gives me a big hug and tells me to drop in any time or text her if I need fashion advice (and boy, do I need help). Then she scurries off to back her baby whom she’s been nursing in the back.

Sell me something

I detest shopping, both in principle and in practice. Recreational shoppers who satisfy their need for entertainment, social interaction or even intellectual stimulation by shopping, but I am an economic optimiser (Puccinelli et al., 2009). My understanding of shopping is much simpler: When I have identified a specific need, I’ll find a good or service to meet it.

The idea of intentionally seeking out opportunities to purchase things that one doesn’t need as a socially acceptable form of leisure is mildly offensive to me. It suggests that hedonism is not only permissible but can even be encouraged by industry.

Truthfully though, the main reason I hate shopping is that I am terrible at it. The task of shopping fills me with more anxiety than it does pleasure. There are far too many choices and and price comparisons to be made, and too many opportunity costs. What shoes look good with this outfit, are skinny jeans still in style, are these shades worth spending a tenth of my salary on? Who knows!

But now as I am walking away from Kara’s house and towards the main road, I notice the tiniest spring in my step. Did I somehow manage to enjoy spending money frivolously? It hadn’t been stressful like my cautious surveying of a Zara store or frantic scrolling through an online catalogue. Instead, what I went through today was, dare I say it, fun.

How did this happen?

People don’t buy things because they really need them, but because they believe they do.

There’s nothing groundbreaking about this idea. Introduced in the 80s by Holbrook and Hirschman, the model of consumer value is premised on “the pursuit of fantasies, feelings and fun” which leads us to consume as a means rather than an end in itself.

Businesses must first inform consumers of their desires. They must create in customers a need or want that they can only fulfil by buying their product or service and usually try to create that need through smart marketing campaigns and, more recently, branding.

After years of overexposure to aggressively marketed brand stories that despite their laborious construction echo the same themes and promote universally palatable lifestyles (put your health first! love yourself! make your life easier!) or images (buy this and everyone will how just how eco-conscious/ smart and savvy/ suave and cool you are!), our generation has been inoculated against the power of suggestion.

These days, companies, big or small, can’t force our hands with their relentless, wanton advertising. A new breed of consumer has emerged. Gronroos (2008) asserts that the modern consumer wields the authority to create value for himself, not retailers of businesses.

“[S]uppliers are value facilitators developing value propositions…. [they merely] create the resources, in order to let the customer’s create value on their own, in their value-generating processes”.

So what do we want?

Three things (Hulten, 2011):

  1. We want to build up our own individual identities and images. We consume brands and experiences that reflect that image through their symbolic content.
  2. We want to promote our personal welfare. We demand high-value services and high-quality experiences to meet our need for self-fulfilment.
  3. We want to indulge our senses and access our emotions. We gravitate towards products and services that acknowledge our social life, culture, personal backgrounds and values, all of which elevate our affective engagement and consequently, our enjoyment or, if not, the intensity of our experience. We want something that speaks to our humanity.

These personal driving forces govern how we make decisions about our purchases. Traditional marketing that is transactional, or product-focused, weighs heavy on the first part: image-building. It operates under microeconomic assumptions that falsely concentrates its efforts on a single exchange between an active seller and a passive buyer.

I would have been impervious to this approach, because I don’t buy beautiful clothing to signal my identity. Nice clothes are very un-me.

The emergent approach to marketing targets the experiential logic of a customer that corresponds to the second and third point. Hulten (2009) suggests that immersive, multi-sensory strategies endear the company to customers. The cosy, laid-back atmosphere at Kara’s home, receiving her full attention and time, my wellbeing definitely got a major boost.

What I truly appreciated was the pure, unadulterated human connection that I think we all crave for and are so often lacking. It was easy for me to let my guard down and share the space with the women. They weren’t after my money. They were invested in finding items of clothing that I would like. They were on my team.

Essentially, the key to converting a consumption atheist like me is to envelope them with love. Your customers aren’t just buyers. They’re basically your people. That “community-building” crap that so many businesses are latching on to? We can roll our eyes at the overused buzzword, but it’s what this generation is sorely missing. We have all these goods and services available to us at the tips of our fingers, but convenience isn’t everything anymore. Sure, I can probably buy anything I could possibly need with an app on my mobile phone, but I’d travel all the way to Frankel Avenue to shop in Kara’s home again just because she’s so fuckin’ cool and I really enjoyed hanging out with her. Most of all, I felt valued there. No clothing chain store or online retailer can replicate the warmth that she emanates. And I’m willing to pay for that.

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