Shopping as Self Expression

Shopping has become a means of self expression.  As the retail industry continues to fragment and retail brands continue to proliferate, people now make statements to others — and to themselves — by where, when, and how they choose to shop.  I was surprised to discover, though, that the shopping-as-self-expression phenomenon originated back in the late 19th century.

Edgar Degas, “The Millinery Shop,” 1879–1886. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 43 5/8 in. (100 x 110.7 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection, 1933.428. Bridgeman Images

In late 1800 Paris, milliner shops arose as both symbols and influences of the culture.  These shops were owned or run by women and women were their primary clientele.  They were a part of a growing movement of female independence, prior to which women wouldn’t go shopping by themselves.  As women called on women in these shops and collaborated on the design and making of the elaborate hats, they were expressing their newfound freedom and empowerment.  They hatched a new age of modernity and artistry.

Edgar Degas and several other Impressionist artists captured the changing times in stunning paintings that are currently on display at the San Francisco Legion of Honor museum.  I’m sure you would recognize the centerpiece of the exhibit:  Degas’s At the Milliner’s (pictured above.)  But it is only one of an entire collection of works that captured the changing nature of women, retail, and fashion at that time.  As I visited the exhibit, “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade,” I was struck not only by the beauty and intricacy of the displayed hats and paintings, but also by how much our current society mirrors that significant period of time.

The exhibit narrative talked about how as the middle-class grew, more women could afford to buy and wear fancy hats, so shopping for them in exclusive boutiques became a way for a woman to express her social status and fashion sense.  Today, people in most income ranges have so many choices for shopping — and each one says something different about the shopper.  Whether you know it or not, your shopping says a lot about you.

Think about the act of buying a white shirt.  You could go to Walmart, where you would throw one in your shopping cart along with deodorant, cat food, and soda; use the Amazon mobile app to find the lowest price on one with decent ratings, click a few buttons, and receive it on your doorstep the next day; browse through options at a department store until you found one you liked; visit several specialty mall stores to try on various styles before narrowing it down to a decision; discover a new online retailer while perusing Vanity Fair and go to its website to check out the selection; get one tailored made at your favorite boutique; or maybe just happen to be walking down the street thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner when a store display catches your eye and you decide you must have that shirt.

Wherever, however, whenever you shop, you’re not just buying a shirt, you’re telegraphing what you value — convenience, price, quality, style, service, uniqueness, trendy-ness, etc.  As much as the shirt itself, the shopping is a way you express yourself — and not just to others.  When you make a smart, unusual, popular, indulgent, quick, or fun decision while shopping, you’re affirming your values to yourself.

Retailers would do well to understand shopping as self-expression. Their brand identities should connect to the values that their customers want to experience and express as shoppers.  Their customer experiences should embody those values — make them visceral and unmistakable. With all the choices that exist today, shopping should no longer be considered just a transaction.  It’s an experience of self-expression.


Retail Evolution
Extraordinary Experiences
Filling Shopping Bags by Filling Needs

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