Shopping: An Essay

The more we travel, the more we shop. Are we finding what we want?

Shopper with armload of clothes

Travelers in the United States spend an average of $333 shopping while on vacation.

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Feel free to admire the nicely faded cotton T-shirt I’m wearing. It’s from the Anchor Bar in Freeport, Maine, and I picked it up on a recent vacation. I have to admit that my memories of the bar are a bit indistinct and not because of any misbehavior on my part. It’s because I actually never went there. The bar doesn’t exist, and as far as I know it never existed.

My vacation was in Los Angeles, and I bought the T-shirt at the massive J.Crew store in an upscale mall called the Grove. Here I found racks of old-style travel T-shirts from a great many places—beach clubs in Bali, motels in the Sierra Nevada—none of which actually exist. The Grove is the perfect spot to buy a T-shirt from a fake place because the mall itself is sort of an idealized fake place. It has the feel of an art deco downtown that went to Tuscany on holiday and stayed, then was populated by people who had little to do but shop and sit on benches and listen to Frank Sinatra from hidden speakers.

Tourists like me used to pick up souvenirs that spoke of a place. In fact, scholars think the first souvenirs were pottery shards gathered by pilgrims from holy lands—keepsakes literally wrenched from the earth. These souvenirs evolved into religious totems sold in front of notable cathedrals, at Chartres, say, and then eventually into colorful ashtrays inscribed with greetings from sunny california!

Today, the place is not the thing—or not so much. In surveys, nearly half of all traveling shoppers say they don’t really care if they buy things that represent the place they visit. My T-shirt, in short, expresses not where I’ve been but who I am. I’m casual and informal, my T-shirt says. I’m the sort of person who would enjoy slumming in dive bars and cheap motels if I didn’t spend so much time at the mall.

I’m not being wholly glib. I believe my T-shirt is an authentic souvenir, one true to our times. Shopping, as we all know, is not a town in China. It’s where we go on vacation these days.

You don’t have to trust me on this. People with clipboards—perhaps the ones behind the ficus tree in your hotel lobby—know what you’re up to. They report that merchandise chasing is now the leading activity for vacationers. One of every three U.S. travelers takes time to shop while away from home. Only one in 14 goes to a theme park, one in 50 to an art museum or gallery. And their dollar-votes are subtly reshaping the nation. During the 1990s, the square footage at U.S. museum stores increased by 29 percent; gallery space grew by just 3 percent.

Even in Las Vegas, shopping is favored by 67 percent of leisure travelers; only 18 percent prefer to gamble. (Vegas might more rightly be nicknamed "Spend City.")

"Not only is shopping melting into everything," writes American-British designer Sze Tsung Leong in the Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, "but everything is melting into shopping . . . so that it is now, arguably, the defining activity of public life."

His claim rings true to Christine Silvestri, founder of Urban Shopping Adventures, a service that leads tours of Los Angeles’s downtown Fashion District, Beverly Hills, and Pasadena. Most of Silvestri’s clients are women, and most are looking for clothes. This jibes with national trends—shoppers on the road spend most lavishly on which things? Clothing and shoes.

I booked Silvestri to lead me through the Fashion District—90 busy blocks overflowing with clothes like a grandmother’s trunk. She deftly detected the "designer-inspired" handbags among the vrai Louis Vuittons and hustled me into wholesale design marts, normally open only to the trade. In the cavernous marble lobby of the California Market Center, at an intersection where every corner is home to a wholesaler, we stopped by a fashion-only bookstore, then scooted through a model-friendly food court, where I was not tempted by the low-carb lettuce wraps.

Silvestri says most of her shoppers, while clearly energized by the hunt, aren’t necessarily looking for astonishing bargains or for cutting-edge styles. Many are hoping for a rich experience, just as hunters often say that bringing home a trophy rack is secondary to spending a day in the woods with friends. Travelers used to experience a foreign place and pick up a souvenir along the way, something to invest with memories and aid future recollections. Now they set out in search of a memento and pick up an experience.

Acquiring is the new adventure travel. And for that there’s no place like home. The United States has more than three times the retail space of Great Britain, the next most credit card–besotted country. Silvestri led me down Santee Alley, where sling sandals and handbags and three-packs of underwear spilled out of souklike stalls and onto walkway tables. I grew twitchy, in part from the sheer profusion of stuff and in part because of the great bargains (six T-shirts for $10!).

But who wouldn’t have breathed a bit faster? Researchers have found that the act of shopping someplace new (or finding new items in a familiar place) can dose the brain with dopamine, a natural chemical that provides deep satisfaction and that often starts to flow when we confront something novel and exciting. All those shoes! All those shirts! Give me more!

Because we respond physiologically to the new, travel exaggerates the thrill—even men are more likely to shop on their vacations. "A lot of studies show that in everyday life people are shopping for essentials—groceries or hardware," says Laura Byrne Paquet, author of The Urge to Splurge: A Social History of Shopping. "When they’re on holiday, they take on another mind-set—it’s my time. It’s time to treat myself."

Paquet suggests that this drive may be strongest in North America, where, with our heritage of individualism, we’ve traditionally distinguished ourselves by the things we buy. "It may be a little more ingrained here than it is in more communal cultures," she notes, adding that she just returned from Pennsylvania’s Amish country, where the goal of shoppers is to dress like everyone else.

So where do we go on our quests? The Travel Industry Association of America reports that enclosed malls remain most popular and that 73 percent of shopping travelers seek stores they don’t have in their hometowns. Can that be? A fourth of us head for the very same stores we find at home?

My shock—shock!—diminished somewhat when I found myself inside J.Crew at the Grove. Suddenly there I was on the second floor, flipping through the T-shirt racks. This J.Crew, of course, is Chartres compared with the rustic chapels I’m used to, full of glorious Southern California light and an up-tempo sound track and fabulously beautiful people. And who wouldn’t detour to visit Chartres? Who wouldn’t seek a keepsake?

It turns out that shoppers tend to prefer what Tibor Scitovsky, author of The Joyless Economy, calls "an intermediate degree of newness." He cites studies of young children allowed to play with a new set of toys. When later turned loose to choose among five piles of toys—one familiar, one unfamiliar, and three mixed—they invariably headed for the stacks with both old and new. (Kids unfamiliar with any picked piles at random.)

Now envision the Grove: J.Crew and Victoria’s Secret are the old familiars, while an adjacent farmers’ market (a genuine relic, founded in 1934) anchors a mix of uncommon merchants, including a dog biscuit bakery, a Philippine imports outlet, and a jeweler whose "accessories are featured in many major TV shows."

I found the same blend of comfort and adventure on Melrose Avenue, not far away. This long road is cluttered with shops that range from high style on the west to antistyle as you move east. I felt drawn to the antistyle end, which is nonetheless studded with familiar touchstones: Starbucks, Skechers, Jamba Juice.

Yet the appeal of Melrose Avenue is almost precisely opposite that of the Grove. It’s an authentic span of old storefronts full of what writer Adam Gopnik has called "weird stores," places that reflect the peculiar passions of individual shopkeepers. Where the Grove is mostly haute middlebrow, here you find shops offering jangly, harsh fashions—Twisted Elegance, Wasteland, and a tattoo parlor called House of Freaks. Shirts and jackets run toward black, and many are lavishly accoutred with wicked bits of steel. The expensive T-shirts with blaring graphics all appear to incite revolution of some sort, although it’s hard to discern against what.

Fashion, perhaps.

I lingered at the Record Collector—a purveyor of vinyl since 1974—then drifted down to, of all places, World of Vintage T-Shirts, where the threads are real and old. I flipped past the logos of a delivery service and an ironworkers’ union, forgotten sports teams from little-known schools, and venerable social causes (just say no to drugs). I paused at one shirt touting a store down the street from where I used to live in Maine.

Did I come all this way to buy a souvenir from home?

"What we’re attracted to has a lot to do with how we perceive ourselves," Silvestri says. "We all fine-tune ourselves a little in the way we dress." She pauses. "Of course, it’s not always that deep. Sometimes it’s just, ‘That’s pretty and I want it.’"

Photography by David Zaitz

This article was first published in November 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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