RESEARCHERS, CASHING IN ON HOLIDAY RUSH, STUDY BUYERS,
By Dolores Kong
The Boston Globe
BRAINTREE --- The Christmas shopping season is barely
underway, and Susan Krivitsky has already bought gifts
for the 20 people on her list. But her husband, Brian,
won't be getting a present for the one person on his
list --- his wife --- until the very last minute.
She's organized, said Brian Krivitsky, 35, of
Marshfield, as he followed his wife last week through
South Shore Plaza on a trip to buy him shirts. "I'm
luggage," he joked.
Then there is the difference in shopping styles
between Louann Brooks, 47, of Braintree, and husband
John, 49. She never pays full price, and he will buy
on impulse, spending whatever it takes to get what he
There is also the contrasting consumer behavior of
Mikal Holloway, 32, of Dorchester, and his friend
Kathryn Silva, 26. He loves to shop, browsing or
buying about three times a week. She avoids retail
stores as much as she can.
While these are random findings from an unscientific
survey, human shopping behavior is seriously studied
worldwide by researchers from such diverse disciplines
as marketing, psychology, anthropology, and sociology.
Theories abound on how and why we shop the way we do,
and savvy marketers and retailers are using all
available data to their advantage, especially this
time of year. Some contend that positioning
merchandise just so, carefully wording sales
promotions, even selecting certain background music,
can help turn fussy consumers into impulse buyers. In
its extreme, the cheerfully festooned holiday shopping
mall can be a laboratory for behavior modification
Christmas carols in shopping malls, for example, could
lead shoppers who are particularly rr sensitive to
environmental stimuli into buying more, said David J.
Moore, associate professor of marketing at the
University of Michigan, who has studied gender
differences in response to advertising and other
aspects of consumer behavior.
"What you hear really has this subliminal effect. It's
the music that drives the mood," Moore said.
Among some of the clues to the different styles and
psychologies of shopping uncovered so far:
People who are more emotionally responsive or
sensitive to external stimuli, such as sounds or
smells, are more likely to buy impulsively, or even
compulsively, while those who are more intellectual in
their approach tend to comparison-shop and gather
information before making a purchase, according to a
variety of studies.
Women tend to look forward to shopping and finding the
perfect gift for someone, while men generally approach
it with a sense of anxiety and dread, according to a
yet-to-be-published University of Florida study.
Researchers conducted a nationally representative
survey of nearly 1,000 people, said Erik Gordon,
director of the university's center for retailing
People are more likely to go across town for an item
discounted 30 percent than they will for one
advertised at a 5 percent discount, even if the amount
of money saved is exactly the same, according to a
study by University of British Columbia consumer
psychologist Peter Darke. Students of consumer
behavior once believed that people would expend the
same effort to save the same dollar amount, but these
and other findings suggest that consumers act based on
Women are more likely to use a coupon when grocery
shopping, but they are less likely than men to use one
for a restaurant while on a date, apparently because
women are more concerned about looking cheap,
according to a University of British Columbia study of
Some people will shop when depressed or stressed to
cheer themselves up, say after moving to a new city,
according to researchers at such diverse institutions
as Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale,
Fla., the University of Delaware, and the University
Shoppers are less likely to make a purchase if
clothing racks are so close together that people brush
up against the merchandise, a result of what New York
consultant Paco Underhill calls the "butt- brush
People will buy more items in a store that offers
shopping carts, 7.2 vs. 6.1 items on average,
according to studies done by South Carolina researcher
Shoppers are more likely to buy a sweater displayed on
a table than one hanging, because that setup invites
people to touch, according to research by consultants
such as Underhill.
The questions still being explored range from why
women generally shop more than men, to why some
shoppers browse while others zero in on a purchase
like a heat-seeking missile, to why some people are
compulsive shoppers while others opt for a more simple
The newest findings are presented at annual meetings
held by the Association for Consumer Research and the
American Psychological Association's society for
consumer psychology. And the latest clues are
incorporated into psychological scales to measure why
some shoppers buy particular brands, for instance,
while others buy only the best bargain.
There is even an anthropology professor, Daniel Miller
of University College London, who spent a year
observing the shopping behavior of residents of an
ordinary London neighborhood. Miller wrote a book
titled "A Theory of Shopping," which concludes that
shopping is, above all, an expression of love for
Shopping "is just basic behavior," said Jerome D.
Williams, a consumer psychologist who is a visiting
associate professor of marketing at the University of
Pennsylvania's Wharton School. And, as with all basic
behavior, he said, people are motivated to shop by
such outside factors as culture, family background,
and race or ethnicity, and by such internal or
psychological factors as their perception of the world
and how they derive their sense of self- esteem.
But, Williams added, "When you get right down to it -
we study this all the time - what goes on inside a
consumer's mind is, to a certain extent, like a black
box" - mysterious.
For consumer researchers, there is no better time to
observe this complex behavior than the holiday season.
"If you had to pick a single day or occasion . . .
Christmas in Western cultures would be the epitome of
that," said Russell W. Belk, a professor of marketing
at the University of Utah who has studied consumer
behavior around the world.
Miller, the anthropologist, has a similar theory about
Christmas shopping being an expression of love,
despite all its outward materialism.
"People are certainly going out and spending a lot of
money and putting a great deal of effort into buying
goods," said Miller, who also edited a book titled
"Unwrapping Christmas." But "these are not things
they're buying for themselves. This is not about
people being hedonistic. It's simply about giving
gifts, gifts that are going to be given when the
family is together."
No matter how or why you shop this holiday season, or
what your style or psychology is in approaching it,
you can be sure it is part of the range of human
behavior that is of interest to researchers, and
The best defense against sophisticated marketing
techniques that try to lure you to spend more than you
should when shopping is to be aware of what motivates
you to shop the way you do, say researchers.
Here are some tips:
Relax. If you are a man who dreads buying for the
woman in your life, "don't go shopping in a
panic-stricken mode. Ask your wife or your significant
other what she'd really like and where she saw it,"
said Erik Gordon, director of the center for retailing
research at the University of Florida, who has studied
gender differences. "If she wants to be surprised,
she'll tell you."
Be self-aware. If you shop impulsively or when you are
depressed, "take a deep breath and ask yourself about
the long-term consequences. There's nothing worse than
getting home from a shopping trip that you thought was
going to buy happiness, but brought you into
bankruptcy instead," said Meryl Gardner, an associate
professor of marketing at the University of Delaware.
Fight the power. If you are a compulsive shopper, be
aware that the Christmas shopping season can trigger
your drive to shop, whether it be out of a need to
boost self-esteem or an attempt to buy love, said
Ronald J. Faber, a University of Minnesota researcher
who has studied compulsive shoppers.
Take control. If you have just moved, realize there is
a "shopping trap" that people fall into in the first
six months or so. Shopping gives them something to do
and a sense of control in an unfamiliar environment,
said Cathy Goodwin, a professor of marketing at Nova
Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Know the tricks. If you are emotionally responsive or
sensitive to environmental stimuli, be aware that a
retailer's music, decor, or layout could be
specifically designed to try to get you to buy more,
said David J. Moore, an associate professor of
marketing at the University of Michigan, who has
studied emotional responsiveness and sensitivity to