The thrill of the hunt

As toys go, the new Pixel Chix Love 2 Shop Mall seems fairly innocuous: a plastic pocketbook that contains a miniature tableau of a shopping mall.

With the touch of a button, a little girl moves from boutique to boutique, happily spending money, window-shopping or grabbing a bite at the food court.

It’s not unlike how Carol Scarangello of Nazareth and her sister, Mary Volpe of Bethlehem Township, enjoy spending their free time. They are among the millions of Americans who love to shop at any time of the year. True aficionados do not need the holidays to motivate them — shopping is recreation and every day is an occasion to shop.

Approximately 11 percent of consumers say they love to shop, or 1 out of 9, according to a recent survey by America’s Research Group, a consumer behavior marketing firm. And, not surprisingly, 80 percent of those who identify themselves as avid shoppers are women.

“Oh God, yes, I love to shop. It’s my favorite pastime,” admits Scarangello, 49, who was spending a recent afternoon shopping at the Lehigh Valley Mall. She opens a Macy’s bag and proudly shows her latest acquisition, a Coach handbag, to complement the one that hangs from her shoulder.

Mattel Inc.’s new toy may have tapped into the zeitgeist of American consumer culture. Shopping has become a national pastime, where a pleasant day’s outing may consist of nothing more than admiring store merchandise, grabbing a Cinnabon and calling it a day.

Pamela N. Danziger, founder of Unity Marketing and author of “Shopping: Why We Love It and How Retailers Can Create the Ultimate Customer Experience,” “I get so much pleasure from shopping, whether it’s for me or for other people,” Scarangello says. ” I’ve always loved it, even as a young woman. It was a passion then and it’s a passion now, unfortunately for my husband .”

Shoppers such as Scarangello provide sociologists, cultural anthropologists and others who study consumer behavior a fascinating window into human behavior.

In an emerging field called neuromarketing, scientists use magnetic resonance imaging and other tools to get a better understanding of how shopping affects areas of the brain and activates pleasure centers. Retailers try to apply this information to everything from store layout to the size of aisles.

Paco Underhill, author of “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping,” and “The Call of the Mall,” maintains that the urge to shop and acquire is as primitive as hunting and gathering. And shopping in a public setting such as a mall corresponds to the human need to be social.

“One of the seminal needs we have as a species is to look at other people,” says Underhill, who founded Envirosell, a behavioral marketing consulting firm.

But is there something else at play when basic needs — food, shelter, clothing — have already been met and shopping becomes a leisure activity?

“If you’re a guy who likes hunting and fishing, you’re not going to Cabela’s because you need more rods or shotguns. You’re going there because you get some pleasure from looking at all the stuff,” Underhill says.

Is it only about the stuff? Some observers say one of the biggest shifts in retailing over the last century is that shopping isn’t about the merchandise anymore. It’s about the experience.

“Shoppers don’t love a store simply because they love the merchandise they carry. They love a store because it touches them personally and emotionally,” Danziger writes.

Witness the growth of stores such as Hollister, L’Occitane and Target, which succeed because they create distinct kinds of experiences. High school students gravitate to Hollister’s cool, boarded-up beach shack storefronts, while more mature women with discretionary income enter the rarified world of L’Occitane, which evokes a sophisticated apothecary set in the south of France’s lavender fields.

Britt Beemer, founder of America’s Research Group , says hard-core shoppers like both: the merchandise and the experience.

“They like having new things and they enjoy the shopping experience. They might have favorite salespeople working in their favorite stores, or they see people they know and can talk to. It’s all these elements,” Beemer says.

James J. Farrell, author of “One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seduction of American Shopping,” theorizes people confirm who they are through their possessions, whether it’s Jaclyn Smith clothes at Kmart or organic food from Wegmans.

“We don’t shop for things, we shop for meaning. All those things identify you as part of a community. So your belongings help you belong,” Farrell says.

“The stuff is a way to get to a meaning. What does it mean to be “just looking’? To my mind, you’re looking for identity and community,” he adds.

Michelle Barry, senior vice president of The Hartman Group, a consumer market research and consulting firm, maintains that people who love to shop don’t necessarily need to spend money to feel the euphoria.

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