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TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Tess Vigeland: Welcome to the silly season of personal finance. Where early-bird sales and weepy TV ads about gift-giving act as magnets for the contents of your wallet. Sure, we’ve heard plenty over the last year about how we’re collectively putting the brakes on our shopping carts.
But when it comes to the act of buying things, Lee Eisenberg says it’s not as simple as need versus want. In fact, he argues, to shop is to be a modern human and it even give our lives meaning. He calls it “Shoptimism,” and that’s the title of his new book.
Thanks for coming in, Lee.
Lee Eisenberg: Good to be here.
Vigeland: I have to ask, when you started writing this book, ’cause there’s not much shoptimism going on these days.
Eisenberg: There’s more going on these days than there were a few months ago.
Vigeland: True, true.
Eisenberg: I actually started when times were good and then I had either the fortune or the misfortune to be able to continue researching and reporting during the great meltdown. On balance, I was actually happy to be able to chart this strange couple of years, because I do think both, what I call the “sell” side, which is the retail side, and the “buy” side have each gone through an enormous change and it will be with us for quite a while
Vigeland: Well let’s talk about some of that change. The subtitle of your book is “Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What.” And as you mentioned, we’re already starting to see a little bit of that. So how much change do you think we’ve really gone through?
Eisenberg: Implicit in your question, I think, is this premise or assumption that we were all, or most of us were, raging shopaholics in the first place. And I think that’s a misperception. I mean, clearly, a great many millions of people had eyes bigger than their wallets. But I think that’s not exactly an accurate perception of what a great many other people are like.
If you go back and what I try to do in the book is not just look at the moment. But I do go back pretty far into the American consumers’ past, starting a little bit in the early 19th century, when we really for the first time, it was introduced to a world of abundance. You know, these incredibly beautiful department stores in the big cities. And a great new working class, but at least an employed working class, were able to go into these places and start spending money on a pretty regular basis.
Flash forward a little bit, we have the Depression, which was convulsive, it very much changed our mind set. Flash forward another couple decades and we were in the 50s, which was the golden age of prosperity and took us pretty much up to 2007. And I think throughout all of that period, even though we were spending an awful lot of money, we can’t forget that there’s something about the American character that is rooted in frugalism. And I’m not suggesting that we’re going to become frugal and I’m not suggesting we’re not going to make impulsive, reckless buys, but I think it’s a mistake to paint with too broad a brush that we were all these mindless sheep being led to our slaughter by manipulative marketers. I think a great many of us deserve more credit, though not necessarily a greater credit limit.
Vigeland: Oh, nice line!
Eisenberg: You like that?
Vigeland: There are a lot of consumer activists, who you refer to as “buy scolds” — I like that, it’s b-u-y, by the way, for the radio audience. Frankly, it seems over the last year, we became a nation of these.
Eisenberg: Well, when I refer, somewhat jocularly, to buy scolds. I’m really talking about very, very serious anti-consumerists, you know, who write manifestos and who, as you say, urge us to live off the land, to make our own clothes and so on and so forth. That’s a pretty extreme version of what you’re talking about.
The thing that I object to, in terms of those sort of extreme buy scolds, they don’t give as much credit for personal judgment and at the same time, they blame marketing and advertising, as if we don’t play a role in that. And they sort of leave us unscathed in their criticism.
Vigeland: You spend quite a bit of the book talking about and looking at the idea of need versus want. Can you briefly tell us what you found?
Eisenberg: It’s not a simple distinction. Obviously, there are a handful of needs that no one would argue with — shelter, food, water, we need clothing. But the minute you expand the definition ever so slightly and get into what are emotional needs, then suddenly I could easily fill in a lot of material things that satisfy those needs.
In the book, I talk about a man who spends a fortune on model trains. By no narrow definition is a model train set a need. But this man, who is a friend of mine, derives enormous satisfaction and gains a lot of respect from others when he both assembles and then shares his model train set.
How many of us have our dad’s old watch in the top drawer of our dressers? Or we hold onto a shirt or we walk into a room and we smell Old Spice and that was the smell of an uncle or something like that. So the things we own can be argued to be extensions of who we are. And that I think is a very interesting and provocative idea and it never comes up in sort of the cartoon debate of whether we’re all way out of control shopaholics or whether we’re not.
Vigeland: The book is called “Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What.” And we’ve been talking with the author Lee Eisenberg. Lee, always nice to talk with you and thanks so much for coming in.
Eisenberg: Tess, thank you.