A frequently muddled, occasionally intriguing exploration of shoppers and shops from the 19th to the 21st centuries.
Bowlby (English, French, and American Studies/Univ. of York) roams the aisles of literature (Émile Zola, Simone de Beauvoir, John Ruskin, Allen Ginsberg), trade magazines (Shelf Appeal, Modern Packaging, Progressive Grocer) and cultural treatises (Hannah Arendt, Ernest Dichter, Vance Packard) to pluck items for her cart of observations on the progress of the modern shopper from sharp and thrifty homemaker to lame-brained housewife to educated, sophisticated consumer. Along the way, she examines the esthetics of display, innovations in packaging, and the education of children (via comic strips) on the travail of shopping with mother on sale day. The author traces changing perceptions of women as shoppers, noting one 1940s tract that ascribed the success or failure of England’s economy to their purchasing choices. Supermarkets, which first appeared in Long Island and New Jersey, transformed buying habits and attitudes, Bowlby finds, and brought more men into the shopping milieu as well. Despite trapping consumers within four walls, however, supermarkets offered no more information to frustrated students of shopping than the old-fashioned street of specialty stores. Even though marketing experts with questionnaires in hand shadow shoppers in the supermarket and pigeonhole them by age, occupation, gender, class, and race, their habits and motivations remain an “insoluble mystery.” An intriguing, if rather befuddling chapter examines the supermarket in literature, from Coleridge to Joanna Trollope and Don DeLillo, as well as the literature in supermarkets, from tabloids to package labels. Even kleptomania is evaluated as a shopping phenomenon. Bowlby concludes with a look at the shopper as computer (constantly processing information) and the computer as shopping complex, via the Web. Her incoherent narrative contains some interesting cultural, literary, and historical observations, but they’re mixed in with lengthy and seemingly pointless digressions on shopping trivia.
For the academic shopaholic.