My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Technology and the World of Consumption

I had just finished giving a talk about youth culture to a room full of professionals who worked in the retail industry when a woman raised her hand to tell me a story. It was homecoming season and her daughter Mary was going to go to homecoming for the first time. What fascinated this mother was that her daughter’s approach to shopping was completely different than her own.

Using Google and a variety of online shopping sites, Mary researched dresses online, getting a sense for what styles she liked and reading information about what was considered stylish that year. Next, Mary and her friends went to the local department store as a small group, toting along their digital cameras (even though they’re banned). They tried on the dresses, taking pictures of each other in the ones that fit. Upon returning home, Mary uploaded the photos to her Facebook and asked her broader group of friends to comment on which they liked the best. Based on this feedback, she decided which dress to purchase, but didn’t tell anyone because she wanted her choice to be a surprise. Rather than returning to the store, Mary purchased the same dress online at a cheaper price based on the information on the tag that she had written down when she initially saw the dress. She went for the cheaper option because her mother had given her a set budget for homecoming shopping; this allowed her to spend the rest on accessories.

Mary’s mother was completely flabbergasted by the way in which her daughter moved seamlessly between the digital and physical worlds to consume clothing. More confusing to this mother, a professional in retail, was the way in which her daughter viewed her steps as completely natural.

In the 1980s, Alan Kay declared that, “technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.” In other words, what is perceived as technology to adults is often ubiquitous if not invisible to youth. In telling this story, Mary’s mother was perplexed by the technology choices made by her daughter. Yet, most likely, Mary saw her steps in a practical way: research, test out, get feedback, purchase. Her choices were to maximize her options, make a choice that would be socially accepted, and purchase the dress at the cheapest price. Her steps were not about maximizing technology, but about using it to optimize what she did care about.

Examining e-commerce, many businesses have found that people use online sources to research what it is that they want to buy. Few people purchase cars online, but many more research their options there. Online shopping sites are assumed to support offline purchasing. Yet, for Mary and other teens that I’ve met, the opposite is also true: they are visiting stores to research what they want so that they can purchase it online at a cheaper venue. The stores allow them to touch, feel, and try on material goods, while the digital world helps them find the cheapest option without running from store to store.

Teens’ interest in shopping is not simply about consuming material goods. For many, sites of consumerism are the only venues available for hanging out with friends. Malls, outlets, and box stores regularly emerged as places where teens could meet each other to hang out. Because security often shoos teens who are loitering away, they get into the habit of window shopping, fondling items for sale as though they may purchase them, and trying on clothes just so that they can appear to be at the shop for a reason. When they have money, they often do buy something, but most teens who hang out in shopping venues have nothing to spend – they simply want a place to hang out with their friends.

Teens who spend a lot of time hanging out around shopping spaces begin to know what each store is selling and have a sense of how often they update their inventory. As Nick (16) explained, “we’ll go in the hat store and look at different kind of hats they got. It’s a lot to do, but sometimes it gets boring ’cause if you go there enough, you start, ‘Oh, I saw that last week. They got the same stuff.’ Sometimes it’s really boring to go in there and you see the same stuff over, and over, and over again.” New inventory makes the “task” of window shopping much more interesting.

While shopping to hang out is a popular American teen past time, it also has a reputation amongst some parents for being a venue for troubled kids to gather. In talking with parents, I often heard references to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, gangs, and “the wrong crowd” as reasons for why they did not allow their children to hang out at the local mall. After intense amounts of pressure from her daughter, one mother did begin allowing her 14-year old to go with her friends to an outdoor mall under one condition: she would sit in Starbucks and her daughter would have to check in every 20 minutes. Not surprisingly, the daughter was not thrilled, but consented because it was her only option. Still, many parents refuse to let their kids go to the mall to hang out.

Teens do lie to their parents to get around this restriction. One girl told me that she and her friends had their parents drop them off at the movie theater adjacent to the mall. She would research the movie ahead of time so that she could report back afterwards. She would walk into the theater with her friends and wait until her parents left before going to the mall to meet up with others who had less restrictive parents. She would make sure to be back at the theater before the movie finished. This practice is not new to this generation, but it still highlights how critical shopping venues are for social gatherings.

Online shops do not have the same hangout appeal and the majority of teens that I’ve met who visit them do so with a purpose. They go to buy something specific and usually with their parents consent because of the credit card requirements. Online shopping is primarily task-centric, while offline shopping is primarily social-centric.

All the same, some teens still value consumption as an end in itself. As Shean (17) explained, “I want to get my own job and start my own stuff and make my own money, a lot of it, so that I can buy whatever I want. I want to be one of those people that can just walk in and say I want that and that and that.” To Shean, all that matters is having the stuff because that’s what it means to “live luxurious.”

When it comes to teen culture, consumerism is still rampant, although shopping is primarily about socialization. Aside from how the mobile phone allows groups to coordinate, technology is not really altering the tradition of hanging out in consumer places. What it is altering is the ways in which teens research and purchase things that they know they want.

Blog entry is a Fieldnote for the Digital Youth Project

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13 comments to Technology and the World of Consumption

  • Xianhang Zhang

    The pattern of doing offline research and then saving money by purchasing online is certainly not new but I wonder how long it will remain tenable as it becomes increasingly popular? Brick and mortar stores are essentially bearing the costs of providing physical display space without being able to capture the value. As you noted, stores are fighting back by banning cameras (as well as deliberately obfuscating model numbers, negotiating exclusive rights and other measures) but I doubt they’ll have any more success than RIAA has had in combating piracy.

    Ultimately, both the online and real world shopping experiences are going to be degraded if consumers remain free to leverage the cost savings of not having to provide a brick and mortar space and I don’t think there’s any one good solution for this. Personally, I would love it if social norms adapted so that it became rude to use the resources of a brick and mortar store without buying. It’s an elegant solution but I’m not very hopeful that it’ll happen.

    IMHO, if you want an advanced indicator on how this trend will play out, look at perfume/fragrance retailers. Fragrances are high value, identical across retailers, costly for retailers to provide testers for, socially acceptable to try before you buy (let me wear it on my skin for a day and I’ll get back to you) and absolutely require physical comparison to make an informed decision. Bargain online retailers will often have the same fragrance for half the price of Sephora or Nordstroms which makes it an absolutely compelling area for consumers to start shifting their consumption online. But what will happen when Sephora et al find it economically unviable to sell $100+ fragrances and consumers now no longer have a place to try them? What will happen to the online market when consumers aren’t willing to make such a financial commitment absolutely blind? Is an entire industry going to be destroyed by this or are there alternative market structures?

    I can think of a couple but none of them make me hopeful and it’ll be interesting to see how the market adapts to these changes.

  • Although your post is a very interesting ethnographic take, like Xianhang I’ll indulge in economics: retail stores appear doomed within 30 years, unless they either:
    – go for niches that demand testing — great for teenagers;
    – be acquired by larger e-stores, and are used as a hands-on front-end, maybe with no possible immediate purchase (to save space) — unique for kids would could go on seemlessly;
    – make the entrance exclusive, paying maybe: I’ve receiveds many Private sales invitation, and that’s not because my PhD allowance puts me in the well-off bracket.

    In any case, comparing with the music industry might be interesting, although the specific assets are very different: the same way remix became a huge phenomenon, custom-made might become big with robotics lowering the cost of sewing.

  • From my point of view, technology is simply following the demands of teens and children to provide them with a more sophisticated process of consumption (as opposed to the actual consumption in itself). The driver here is that consumption has scaled to an extent that everyone spends more and more time in the process of consumption. As a result, people “need” to have these tools in order to navigate their way through a more complex range of choices and to keep up with their peers. Teens have turned to technology to enable them to do this.

  • As an educator, this is interesting to me as it shows ideas of how and where kids choose to access information and be literate in a 21st century globalised society. When it comes to using information for things they are interested in learning about, kids are masters of new technology. We absolutely need to learn these lessons as we try to reinvent classrooms to meet a changing role.

  • Rod

    One can’t help but wonder if there’s a retail model which encourages teens to hang out in a store. Why not place a PC beside the changing rooms and encourage customers to take pictures while trying on clothes, upload them on the spot and share with friends not physically there? (Marketing types might find the results interesting too.) Most teens don’t have the money to spend today, but they likely will in the future, so it can’t hurt to start building the relationship now. The downside is retailers probably don’t want to become a hang-out for teens. The upside is if teens feel a stronger connection to a retailer they may be more likely to buy there instead of online. One thing is clear: Retail needs to renovate more than their stores if they’re going to survive.

  • Xianhang Zhang

    Bertil: It’s not that retail stores are doomed that I’m worried about, society could adapt if retail became obsolete. It’s that for certain products, without a retail presence, *online* stores are doomed as well.

    I find it frustrating in DRM debates that sides are forced to align onto two diametrically opposite positions:

    1. Piracy is inevitable and good for artists because they gain exposure blah blah.
    2. Piract is evil and should be stopped.

    What nobody seems to be really grappling with is what if Piracy is both inevitable and bad for artists? In the same vein, the shift from retail to online might very well be inevitable but it might be detrimental for all parties involved, retailers and consumers and *that*’s what I’m worried about.

  • publius

    Xianhang & Bertil, I’d worry not. The outside of the paradigm isn’t visible from the inside, or at least not as long as one’s perspective is moored there. Experience is the fundamental value of retail. It’s just that a critical mass of retailers have yet to realize this. Until a completely compelling virtual reality is realized, meatspace is the only place to do what happens at, say, American Girl Place or the Apple Stores, or Build-A-Bear Workshop. I think Rod’s on the right track.

    I’m more worried about the smug, ivory tower academics who sneer about so-called “consumerism” and the potential that they’ll inveigle ever more paternalist (sorry, maternalist) intervention in the market. Those of us who are unfettered by such ideological myopia are free to dream the future and get it capitalized. Which puts me in mind of a quotation:

    “What every artist knows: No matter how great my contemporaries, they are human and fallible.
    What every critic knows: One need not actually create anything to lift one’s leg and piss on those that do.”
    – Sigismundo Celine

  • Xianhang Zhang

    publius: I question how widely the model of American Girl will scale. Experience retailing is definitely important and is one way for certain retail outlets to survive but it only applies to aspirational goods which feed on identity and status. You can sell Macs at an Apple Store because buying a Mac signifies to people that you’re a “Mac Person” with all the cultural implications that carries with it. You couldn’t sell PCs the same way because people buy PCs because it’s a computer and they need a computer. If you can get the same specs for $50 cheaper online, why not do it?

    Fragrance is an interesting case because it clearly is an aspirational good but the aspiration is purely towards the fragrance itself. You want to buy something that smells like you think you should smell but it’s irrelevant where you purchased it from because it’s impossible to signal.

  • publius

    Experience retailing … only applies to aspirational goods which feed on identity and status.

    Alain de Boton notwithstanding, such certitude seems unmerited. Theory is not a prescription for reality, it’s a description of reality. Reality gets created first, then the theorists come along and try to explain it; and their theory, being a model of reality and not reality itself, is like the parable of the five blind men and the elephant. Which is why theorists are generally fellows at Harvard, whereas the people whom actually make reality happen are generally entrepreneurs. It’s also what led Einstein to remark that,

    “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”

    So I question the wisdom of reducing the complexity of the market to semiotics; especially a semiotics that is tinged by turgid quasi-marxist social theory.

    Let us consider a rollercoaster. Is the compelling experience it represents merely an expression of status? Sure, teen males goad each other into loosening the grip of their fear to ride the things, but do you really think that as they experience 3Gs they’re thinking, “this should raise my status.”

    You couldn’t sell PCs the same way because people buy PCs because it’s a computer and they need a computer. If you can get the same specs for $50 cheaper online, why not do it?

    Only valid, again, with the intercession of woolly-headed social theory. Part of “experience retail” is knowledge transfer. My firm actually spent a great deal of time examining and modeling the Apple Store. Our experience led us to the conclusion that one of the biggest values it offers is in creating the expectation of a modest learning curve. Consumers are obviously invited to try the products, but they’re also given personal instruction in various uses both before and after making a purchase. It demystifies the machines and their use. It encourages confidence in the consumer that they can realize their goals with the machine.

    Dell would be well served to pay attention. For that matter, so would Microsoft. Demand for computers in general is driven by ever-improved knowledge and expectations regarding what can be done with them. That is behind the modest ascendency of Apple much more so than the hipster Mac user shtick.

  • Just thought I’d come back with some further thoughts on this. I think that there is no question that the retail industry is being transformed by technology.

    From my own observations, I note that more and more retail businesses are transferring the value of their businesses from the product to their relationship with the customer. In that sense, I think we will see a rise in consumers paying for a continued relationship with particular retailers rather than the actual goods being produced. In this scenario, a bricks and mortar shop will serve as a meeting place to further the relationship.

  • I wonder how much of the need to price-shop is determined by current cut-backs of expendable income for youth. As I believe that we really are headed into a serious recession, the need to buy at the lowest possible price may be more important for the average consumer than ever.

    I saw an article last year about a mall-type store that was moving to online shopping exclusively; they had samples of all products in the store, like one of each size, and then a computer to order online where the cash register would be.
    But I can’t for the life of me remember what store this was.

  • danah:

    Your story of the mother’s wonder at her teen moving seamlessly between the digital and physical world has implications for education as well. Our students understand this … but do our faculty? And how do we help them embrace this facility with which their students enter classrooms already equipped?

  • I read your article at Abu Sadat’s blog and I commented there by mistake, but thanks for Abu Sadat for sharing this in his blog :)
    danah, I like your topic so much. we are an era of consumer culture and the technology and internet play great role in evoking and stimulate it. Advertizing on internet became essential for companies these days and youth are influenced by such advertisements often. Same in Egypt, consumer culture is increasing day after day and obsession about technology and its influnce is increasing among the youth. There is a recent very well written book by Roberta Sassatelli named: Consumer Culture, History, Theory and Politics. I hope you will be able to take a look at it since it has part on technology.

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