An Examination of the Dramatic Changes in Shopping Behavior of Consumers in America

Categories: Consumer Behavior

2014 marked an historic shift in the way we shop. Prior to this year, we raided malls on Black Friday to find bargain deals and supported local small businesses. This year was the first year where Cyber Monday sales spiked by 50%. This shocking increase in consumption habits has alarmed marketers, consumers, and brands. America, a culture of consumerism, has changed how buying looks and functions. We still may desire and obtain similar products such as TVs, phones, and clothes, but the advertising, methods for buying products, and retail logistics have radically changed.

This literature review will examine why this change has occurred and how it will shape the future of retail, impact the notion of cultural capital, and whether a digital shift in buying enhances or diminishes a materialist culture addicted to commodity fetishism. The goal is to learn about modern consumer behavior through critically analyzing our culture’s fixation over consumption and the problems our society faces if we continue to be influenced by the media to be super consumers.

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This paper will unpack these notions through various lenses in order to explain this dramatic shift in behavior and how the media has made it more amplified.

Political Economy: How Capitalism And Marketing Have Influenced How We Shop

Consumer culture is unique in that it is marketed to the masses but solely benefits the capitalists. The marketing industry is funded by the elite who determine the messages that the masses receive. The notion that we must all buy more to be happier really only makes the capitalist happy because they are the real beneficiaries.

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Studying our cultural behavior through the lens of the political economy gives greater insights to how our society operates and the values we reinforce.

In Good For Capitalists, Not So Much For Capitalism David Fasenfest (2011)claims that “we live in truly bizarre times” (Fasenfest, 2011, 259). During economic crises and roaring unemployment rates, we find that corporations still increases in profits. Profitable companies allow Wall Street banks to spend their earnings on employees and investors instead of feeding those funds back into the economy. Fasenfest argues that capitalists are going to save this money while the consumers that created it have spent every penny they earned. Capitalism ideals tell consumers to buy more regardless of the economic climate, however, capitalists are the only ones that always benefit. In times where the economy booms, everyone benefits temporarily. Fasenfest examines this issue and takes a critical approach to the hegemonic period for capitalism and global power.

Capitalism ‘present’ in regards to our culture is portrayed as cultural capital. Douglas Holt (1998) author of Does Cultural Capital Structure American Consumption?uses Bourdieu’s theory to relate culture capital to consumption patterns in contemporary culture. Holt claims that “Pierre Bourdieu’s (1984) theory of cultural capital and taste offers the most comprehensive and influential attempt to develop a theoretical framework to plumb the social patterning of consumption in an increasingly mystified social world” (Holt, 1998, 1). He finds that there is a lot of overlap between social class norms and consumerism. Those who consume more are considered to be at a higher social class than those who do not consume. Next, Holt attempts to distinguish which came first realizing that the social class system developed mass consumerist structures and habits. Our society has built up consumerism to the point where social class is largely determined by your ability to consume instead of other cultural factors.

Some theorists argue that cultural capitalism has grown so much, and saturated our society completely, that were are in a hypermodern state of consumption. SimonGottschalk (2009) author of Hypermodern Consumption And Megalomania says that hypermodernity is what characterizes the contemporary movement to commercialize and consume everything. He uses the term hyper-consumption to explain the corporate control of popular taste and our cultural values. Gottschalk (2009) claims that “the argument that consumers seek to satisfy increasingly fragile and destabilized identity needs by purchasing commodities and services is not new” (313). Since McDonalds tells you to smile, you should smile…and eat McDonalds. Social psychological trends have changed the way we comprehend rhetoric and comprehend images. Using hypermodernity as a framework, this author argues that we seem to be beyond a social norm of consumerism around us but instead we are an active participant who is forced to participate. The notion of hyper-consumption truly exemplifies the ideals of our political economy in regards to consumerism. In order to make the most money, marketers benefit from telling consumers to buy, regardless of consumer needs.

The notion of super consumption on a global scale has been addressed by many scholars.  One in particular, author Robert Chrisman (2013) who wrote Globalization and the Media Industry, argues that “globalization has transformed the traditional role of media as a reflective force. Now media has become a generative force, an engine of the economic and political ruling class” (74). Here he argues that modern media is a tool controlled by the elite to impose persuasive messaging to the masses.  In his article, he addresses the dissolved boundaries between the elite and the media because he states that they are now only representing and defending those with cultural capital.

Consumer Culture

Our society needs to rethink our practices because the intentions of our cultural values do not match the actions that we take as consumers. Applying critical theories to these capitalist practices and consumer behavior enhances our understanding of the problem. Jeff Murray and Julie Ozanne (2010) authors of The Critical Participant examine the need for critical theory within the context of social practices and institutions. For the sake of my project, the need for critical theory in an ever-expanding consumption industry is vital. It is important that we ask questions and apply theories to researching social and economic changes. The authors of this article explain that consumption and markets are at the heart of social problems today. These habits range from addictions, overspending, and obesity. Our culture portrays consumption as the constant activity to participate in while credit card debt is a constantly increasing problem here too. This work recognizes the importance of critical theory being applied to such issues.

Branding is a key factor in connecting consumers with ideals and rational for purchasing products. Adam Arvidsson (2005) author of Brands: A Critical Perspectiveaddresses changes in branding through Marxist thought. He argues that brands are now based on the immaterial labor of consumers. He specifically focuses on communication strategies to create social bonds, common identities, and shared experiences. These three strategies develop what he calls autonomous Marxism where consumers connect with a brand’s identity instead of the product. By associating with brand with a lifestyle, consumers who identify with that lifestyle will buy their products without thinking about it. He argues that “today this link between public communication and economic value has acquired an unprecedented centrality” (Arvidsson, 2005, 235). He concludes that autonomous Marxism enhances the ability for brands to establish social commonalities while exploiting the consumers spending habits.

The impact of brands and consumer culture drastically change the way our society functions and interprets material goods. James Carrier and Josiah Heyman (1997) look at the anthropological commoditization of our consumption habits in their article Consumption And Political Economy. They use Barthes idea of sociological roots to explain that objects, services and activities have meanings associated with them. In consumer behavior, we often buy a product or services because of the meanings felt behind them instead of buying it for the product or service itself. In addition, they argue that Jennifer Sandlin looks at a structural approach to the problem differently. Sandlin (2008) disagrees with Marxist thought of reducing culture to production and instead says that Bourdieu and Baudrillard insist that our culture dictates production. In her article Consumerism, Consumption, And A Critical Consumer Education For Adults, capitalistic methods use cultural values to shape production and buying habits in order to feed the overarching method. Our cultural actions signify that the media we see is right, buying more is good or at least accomplishes the ‘American Dream’.  In her article ’Mixing Pop (Culture) And Politics’: Cultural Resistance, Culture Jamming, And Anti-Consumption Activism As Critical Public Pedagogy she says that actively applying Marxist theory to consumption habits reveals problems within our culture.

Persuasion in media is typically a contributing factor when making buying decisions.  Robert Gass and John Seiter (2011), analyze different methods of persuasion and how these factors influence consumption through compliance gaining efforts in their book Persuasion: Social Influence And Compliance Gaining.  There are several persuasive strategies used in this book, however there were certain ones that focused specifically on media influence and achieving compliance through branding.  In particular, nonverbal factors in media such as sexual desires, personal achievements, or social status or popularity are often used because they are effective in conveying a brand message without actively explaining their goal.  These types of persuasive messages are often subliminal yet they reach the viewer directly.  Classic examples in media include the “guy meets girl” concept where the notion of fitting in, expressing sexuality, finding love, and being cool are all easily expressed with nonverbal cues such as kissing, touching, or hugging.  In terms of marketing, Gass and Seiter claim that using such cues will increase the viewers likelihood to find interest in the product because they themselves might be seeking to fill that void.  In this case, the consumer is already hooked on a brand and product because of that need or desire instead of the reality of their purchase.

Shopping Addiction

Shopping addiction has never been more apparent in our society. George Carlin claimed that “We buy shit we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like”. Media has brainwashed us into believing that it is important to buy in order to ‘be cool/beautiful’, ‘get the girl/guy’, or ‘have fun’. In reality buying is not required to accomplish these qualities. However, our media has reinforced these ideals to the point where products are the drivers for becoming impressed instead of non-material drivers. Media makes it impossible to achieve complete perfection because there are always new products to obtain. A constant struggle to collect everything necessary is dangerous, contagious, and addicting.

In JulietSchor’s (2005) reviewof Zukin’s book Point Of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture, Schor is fascinated by how the concept of shopping around has been instilled in our cultures throughout history. We shop around for the perfect mate, we “devote more land area to malls than schools”, and we shop around online for products before buying them online or at a store (1). Historically shopping around consisted of where to construct cities, find mates, connecting with allies, or buying products at markets. Our cultures economic model of capitalism has taken this notion and exponentially expanded it to take over the way we do everything. Retail outlets like Wal-Mart inflate the term shopping to really mean the need for mass continuous and conspicuous consumption.

The leading cause of this change in behavior is due to class struggle. Jon Goss (2006) claims in Geographies Of Consumption: The Work Of Consumption that “if Karl Marx were alive today, he would write about shopping as the new class struggle” (237). We are in a society that pushes ideals of consumption on us constantly when we really do not need anything more. Goss describes this as the work of consumption because we should be saving, but instead it works against us to insist that we shop. Regardless of the amount we save, there is always a new product to buy. In fact, he argues that the more money we save the more stuff we feel we need to buy because we can afford it. We take pleasure in shopping and therefore if we can afford it, we must buy it, regardless of the need for it. The modern American dream is not just the ability to buy whatever you want, but exercising that ability.

The opportunities that the average individual has are minimal compared to the average marketing content projected on society. Sharon Zukin and Jennifer Maguire (2004) address the process of choosing goods and how those choices reflect the opportunities and constraints of modern society in their article Consumers And Consumption. Consumption is no longer about consuming for needs, but it is instead about consuming for identity. Meanwhile, technologies like delivery systems and a wider array of products has created a framework for social groups to form around experiencing a product and shaping that experience around ones identity. These authors find that global consumerism is fostered by marketing strategies and media output which show similar trends in consumer habits although they can be interpreted differently.

Alternatively, some theorists see the marketing of products as a solution to our problems when the real problem is that we consume too many products. Paul Kingsbury (2008) analyzes Zizek’s theories in Did Somebody Say Jouissance? On Slavoj Zizek, Consumption, And Nationalism about the cultural discontent of global emotional bonds. He first addresses Zizek’s theory of emotion being either subjective or real. In consumerism, an advertisement may tell you that a product or brand will make you feel a certain way, but in reality it may be very different. Then, Kingsbury examines Jacques Lacan’s notion of jouissance. This is where Zizek analyzes the enjoyment of critical engagement with consumption and nationalism. Lacan views these fundamentals of philosophy as a positive attitude of reality; however Zizek claims that those same philosophies can be extended to political economy and cultural politics.

Sociological theory has been applied to critical theory about consumption, but it has not been applied to theories within consumption critique. This article analyzes sociology theories through the lenses of cultural, materialist, and critical theories. First, Michael Lacy (1989) looks at the cultural perspective of conspicuous consumption and finds that taste and reputability are the detriment factors. When something is appealing and a culture approves of it, then consumption of those goods or services is demanded. In this case, Lacy brings up Bourdieu’s framework of cultural capital to describe these cultural affirmations on consumption practices. In terms of materialist theory, Lacy says these feelings represent needs to acquire more.

Affluence has historically been a causal factor for stimulated consumption behavior in the U.S.  However, growing global factors and increased global GDP have caused other countries to follow our trends.  Peter Lorenzi (2008) addressed the U.S. habit in Affluence, Consumption and the American Lifestyle stating that the U.S. has always had excessive consumption behavior, but the government and those with cultural capital exacerbate these demands.  Lorenzi analyses wealth-creating behaviors that the government and elite have established in order to make money.  For example, he states that temporarily lowering gas prizes allows consumers to afford gas guzzling cars.  Then, oil tycoons will increase the price and collect on their investment.  Also, he continues by looking at government lotteries being a regressive tax.  In this case, something that was historically illegal is now a government run program that taxes the poor.  The notion of perceived chance instills hope in poor participants while the government gets wealthier.    Both examples illustrate the notion of income generation and illegitimate persuasive tactics to participate in paying for their investments.

In some extremes commodity addiction appears because of a fixation over marketers messages. Robert Miklitsch (1996) takes commoditization to another level in The Commodity-Body-Sign: Toward A General Economy Of ‘Commodity Fetishism’by addressing the notion of commodity fetishism. He claims that we have developed a perverse general economy where we use the political economy as a tool for use-exchange value and a need to produce. Moreover, he uses Marx theories of commodity and reality to examine the ‘need’ to buy in our society. Also, Freud’s essays on sexuality are referenced because he compares the perversions of buying to sexual dispositions. Finally, he critiques the political economy using Baudrillard’s theory on the fetishism of a product and how we are subjected to the values. Since our commodity fetishism is highly profitable for capitalists, there is not an incentive to change marketing strategies. In the end, commodity addiction is dangerous because we will always be chasing new products.

Critical Resistance

Resisting the over-commercialized marketing messages of our society is nearly impossible. We are constantly bombarded with media telling us to buy, so once we are addicted, it is extremely challenging to break away from those habits. Isleide Fontenelle (2010) examines the anti-brand movement given the new capitalist model of consumption in Global Responsibility Through Consumption?. The article focuses on the book No Logo by Naomi Klein to conduct a discourse analysis about responsible consumerism in business media. She defines business media as the advertising strategies used in media to increase consumption and grow businesses. She argues that the media has developed the ‘responsible consumer’ who buys to support the economy and large corporations. In reality, this has been absorbed by consumers globally and has become an enormous profit machine for large businesses and investors. Conversely, consumers are being irresponsible with their consumption habits but are told that everything is better than it was before.

Juliet Schor (2010) examines the notion of combating consumerism in Combating Consumerism And Capitalism: A Decade Of No Logothrough the use of the book No Logo by Naomi Klein. Schor conducts a discourse analysis about Klein’s idea of brand expansion. Specifically she looks at how companies like Nike, McDonald’s, and Starbucks have become super-brands because of their international advertising in public media spaces that has essentially educated the world on their brand. The idea of no logo works in terms of still acquiring the necessary products without branding associated with it, but Schor argues that in reality, the super-brand ideology has been absorbed by consumers globally. Therefore, it has become a profit machine for large businesses and investors. In addition, consumers feel forced to give in to consumer culture and associate their consumption habits with brand ideologies that have been absorbed into cultures.

Credit cards have been another causal factor for shopping addiction that has made restraint from buying very difficult.  The introduction of credit cards into our marketplace has blurred the lines between money obtained and money owed.  Credit cardholders may not have sufficient funds, but are still able to go on a shopping spree.  The media has elevated this concept through vast examples of shopping spree behavior.  Steve Worthington (2001), author of Affinity Credit Cards: A Critical Review, offers additional insights into this billion dollar industry that focus on ideologies surrounding modern retailing.  In Worthington’s article, he particularly focuses on affinity cards that retailers use to provide minimal rewards to consumers in exchange for brand loyalty.  In many cases, he finds that retailers know that customers will spend more at affinity card stores because they feel as though they will get more in return.  Not only does this lock in customers to a business, but it also creates an imaginary feeling of reward for using the card.  Truthfully, affinity cards do create savings on purchases, but consumers will always be better off not buying over buying with that card.  The real reward and value is given to the retailers by accepting minimal discounting in exchange for increased sales rates, store visits, and brand loyalty.

Even though large retailers selling products may be the source of funding for the cultural consumption explosion, the creative industries are the creators of this propaganda. Jim Shorthose (2004) examines the ideas of cultural production, capitalism, and consumption in A More Critical View Of The Creative Industries: Production, Consumption, And Resistance to analyze how the media establishes a cultural norm in a capitalist economy. The author claims that “significant economic and work-related changes, at both structural and micro-levels within the creative industries, have potential implications for future western capitalist economies as a whole” (Shorthose, 2004, 3). Advertising is a primary cause for cultural consumerism; although a lack of media would drastically reduce the ideals of buying.

The influences from marketing modern consumption have greatly escalated with the addition of digital advertising and online shopping. In fact, these new practices have completely changed the shopping industry in the ways that shopping is exercised and how distribution channels allow us to obtain goods. In many cases digital media has allowed for misbehavior from marketers and consumers in this new digital marketplace or playground. Specifically, consumers have had the ability to create new distribution channels but marketers still seem to want to control and manipulate online possibilities. Ted Gournelos and David Gunkel (2011) address many of these misuses in their book Transgression 2.0: Media, Culture, and the Politics of a Digital Age. Even though most of their references are not related to buying specifically, the influence that their included subtopics has drastically impacted online consumer behavior and the digital marketplace. For example, the authors address the establishment of sites such as wiki leaks that exposes media consumers to secret information that causes global chaos.  Not only can wiki leaks uncover information about secret government transactions, documents, and other data.  Additionally, sites like the silk road or the pirate bay allow consumers to download unlimited quantities of media illegally or have easy access to illegal products sold on the black market.  Technology has created new avenues to buy things that were never available to most people before.   Not only does this increase consumer options, but it also increases consumer spending due to availability, scarcity, or the easiness and simplicity of participating in untracked illegal activity.

The combination of the profitability of capitalism, the addictive nature of media, and the difficulty to resist consumer messages all contribute to a never-ending cycle of consumption-based cultural practices. The influence of online media may provide opportunities for change, but the internet is also a new media platform controlled by the same capitalists who created our consumer culture.

Works Cited

  1. Arvidsson, Adam. 2005. “Brands: A Critical Perspective.”Journal of Consumer Culture. 235-258.
  2. Carrier, James, Josiah Mc Heyman. 1997. “Consumption And Political Economy.”The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 355-373.
  3. Chrisman, Robert. 2013. “Globalization and the Media Industry.” The Black Scholar. 74-78.
  4. Fasenfest, David. 2011. “Good For Capitalists, Not So Much For Capitalism.”Critical Sociology. 229-262.
  5. Fontenelle, Isleide. 2010. “Global Responsibility Through Consumption?” Critical Perspectives on International Business. 256-272.
  6. Gass, Robert, John Seiter. 2011. “Persuasion: Social Influence And Compliance Gaining.” Pearson Education, Inc. 1-370. Print.
  7. Goss, Jon. 2006. “Geographies Of Consumption: The Work Of Consumption.” Progress In Human Geography. 237-249.
  8. Gottschalk, Simon. 2009. “Hypermodern Consumption And Megalomania.” Journal of Consumer Culture. 307-327.
  9. Gournelos, Ted, and David Gunkel. 2011. “Transgression 2.0: Media, Culture, and the Politics of a Digital Age.” Bloomsbury Academic, 1-312. Print.
  10. Holt, Douglas. 1998. “Does Cultural Capital Structure American Consumption?” Journal of Consumer Research. 1-25.
  11. Kingsbury, Paul. 2008. “Did Somebody Say Jouissance? On Slavoj Zizek, Consumption, And Nationalism.” Emotion, Space, and Society. 48-55.
  12. Lacy, Michael. 1989. “Cultural, Materialist, And Critical Theory Approaches To Consumption Critique: Explorations Toward And Empirical Project.” Sociological Spectrum. 361-378.
  13. Lorenzi, Peter. 2008. “Affluence, Consumption and the American Lifestyle.” Springer Science + Business Media. 108-112.
  14. Miklitsch, Robert. 1996. “The Commodity-Body-Sign: Toward A General Economy Of ‘Commodity Fetishism’.” Culture Critique. 5-40.
  15. Murray, Jeff, Julie Ozanne. 2010. “The Critical Participant.” Journal of Marketing Management. 37-41.
  16. Sandlin, Jennifer. 2004. “Consumerism, Consumption, And A Critical Consumer Education For Adults.”  New Directions For Adults And Continuing Education. 25-34.
  17. Sandlin, Jennifer, Jennifer Milam. 2008. “’Mixing Pop (Culture) And Politics’: Cultural Resistance, Culture Jamming, And Anti-Consumption Activism As Critical Public Pedagogy.” Curriculum Inquiry. 323-350.
  18. Schor, Juliet. 2010. “Combating Consumerism And Capitalism: A Decade Of No Logo.” Women’s Studies Quarterly. 299-301.
  19. Schor, Juliet. 2005. “Review of Zukin’s: Point Of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture.” Contemporary Sociology. 43-44.
  20. Shorthose, Jim. 2004. “A More Critical View Of The Creative Industries: Production, Consumption, And Resistance.” Capital & Class. 1-9.
  21. Worthington, Steve, 2001. “Affinity Credit Cards: A Critical Review.” International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management. 485-512.
  22. Zukin, Sharon, Jennifer Maguire. 2004. “Consumers And Consumption.” Annual Review Of Sociology. 173-197.

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An Examination of the Dramatic Changes in Shopping Behavior of Consumers in America. (2021, Sep 27). Retrieved from

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