I Love the Smell of Commerce in the Morning

To kick off my new blog, here's a post from the archives:

It amazes me sometimes, how much thought and consideration goes into marketing a product or brand. There are so many factors that most people don’t even consciously realize when they step into a mall or department store. It’s not just about how your product is portrayed: its style, design, audience, etc. It’s also about the environment that that product is in, and how it helps to serve that particular brand. Something sold in Wal-Mart, for example, is probably gonna reach a completely different demographic than a product sold at American Eagle.

American Eagle, however, serves a more specialized purpose than Wal-Mart. It’s brand is based on its product, and each must reflect the other to achieve a cohesive identity. I wrote an essay my junior year of college as I was studying the science of shopping that I’d like to share today. It highlights some of these hidden factors that go into influencing your buying decisions. Here it is in its entirety:

I Love the Smell of Commerce in the Morning:

My Trip to Brookfield Square

Brookfield Square: A melting pot of American culture since it opened as the areas first enclosed shopping center in 1967. People of all ages, races, and social status’ flock here in droves to satiate their consumeristic needs.  Whether you’re looking for the newest styles to flaunt while you walk around campus, or just looking for a way to waste a couple of hours: this is the place to be.

As I first walked into the mall, my senses are consumed with the energy that Brookfield Square so cordially offers. The murmur of other shoppers going about their business; the myriad of aromas emanating from the various restaurants that line the food court; the visual beauty of the newly remodeled interior; and, of course, James Blunt telling me just how beautiful I am.

I never really noticed how hard they strive to achieve an open and inviting atmosphere, until I was tasked with staking out one of my favorite shopping centers. The subtle stone and wood architecture accentuated by the large skylights above encourage you to sit in one of their many resting areas lined with leather chairs and loveseats. You could even rest your feet by the large circular fireplace in the center of the food court.

The main entrance to Brookfield Square is set up the way you would expect: various shops set up to the right offering a multitude of goods with the majority of the restaurants set up to your left. There’s no doubt that this was a conscious decision when modeling the mall. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in “The Science of Shopping” from “Signs of Life in the U.S.A.”; “Human beings tend to walk the way they drive” and “people will readily cross a lane of pedestrian traffic to satisfy their hunger but rarely to make an impulse buy of a T-shirt or magazine” (93).

Although I’m tempted by the thought of a few Double-Decker tacos from Taco Bell, I’ve come here on a mission today. My destination: American Eagle. My goal: return the shirt I purchased the other day. I made a beeline to the store trying to avoid the other temptations along the way. I almost succumbed to the sweet smell of Cinnabuns, but figured this was a bad idea as I hadn’t even eaten breakfast yet.

Upon reaching my destination, I entered a familiar environment. I’ve been shopping at American Eagle for a couple years now and know the layout of the store quite well. Today, though, I’ve come with a new understanding of the science of shopping. As I walked through the decompression zone, I noticed that although the front promotional table had a sign advertising the current sale, the items layed out on it weren’t actually part of that sale. Taking a few more steps in I came to the actual items; exactly where Gladwell said they would be; about “five to fifteen paces” in (94).

This store is set up like many other stores like it; the mens clothes are on the right and the womens clothes are on the left. I assume that this is done for a specific reason. Part of that reason being, what Gladwell calls, the Invariant right. He states that one “of the fundamental rules of how human beings shop is that upon entering the store… the shopper invariably and reflexively turns to the right” (94).  If you also consider that shopping is “an activity marked as feminine” (103), as Anne Norton put it in her essay “The Signs of Shopping”, then you can come to one conclusion: since men are invariably turning right anyway, women are more likely to take that turn to the left to get to their products.

They keep the lights low in here, except for the strategically placed directional lights that bring out the texture in the fabrics while also adding shadow to them. The “old “ wooden floors and white walls remind me of an old friends house. If it wasn’t for the pictures of predominantly white models dressed in American Eagle clothing plastered on the walls, I could almost think I was shopping in someones home. I’m sure this is all done to create a relaxing and comfortable atmosphere.

As I walked further into the store, I reached the registers. This is also where they keep the impulse items; belts, wallets, cologne, necklaces, etc. Although people are likely to come in for these products alone, they’re even more likely to buy them as they’re impatiently waiting in line. I, however, didn’t have to wait long. I walked up to the counter and set my bag down just as the cashier asked, “Did you find everything okay.”

“I’m actually just making an exchange today.” I replied.

“Oh, okay.” She said with a smile. “May I ask why you’re returning this?”

I told her that I had bought the shirt a few days ago, and that when I got home and tried it on, I noticed the collar was abnormally wide. Seriously, if my head were the size of a watermelon, it would’ve fit through with ease. She said that that would be no problem, and that she would hold onto my bag as I looked around for another shirt to exchange it with.

I walked over to the table I had originally grabbed it off of, hoping that they would still have one in my size: they did! This time I carefully inspected the collar. As I was doing so I noticed a pair of pants on one of the mannequins.

“Dammit.” I thought to myself, as I walked over to see if they had a pair in my size. “They’ve trapped me again.”

You see, I normally engage in something I call “pre-shopping”. I go online to see what specials they have at my favorite stores, and then look at only the items that’re on sale. This allows me time to consider the purchase, and also prevents me from impulse buying as I usually just run in, grab what I’m looking for, and make a quick retreat. But today my guard was down. I’m trying to analyze my environment in detail, after all.

After I grabbed a pair of pants off the shelves, I picked up a few of the other meticulously folded shirts off of the table I was just at. I often wondered why it was that they had their items scattered all over the store. For instance, they have pants in at least four different places. I think I’ve figured it out though: it encourages outfit shopping. You can’t just go over to the shirts and buy one without seeing three other items that would look good with it. It also doesn’t help that the headless mannequins are dressed in a way that most people wouldn’t think of dressing themselves if they hadn’t seen it. I, however, wasn’t going to buy the five other items that were on the mannequin wearing my pants. I already had too much.

While I walked to the dressing room to try on the clothes that I shouldn’t have had to begin with, I couldn’t help but notice the couple shopping over on the womens side. The girl was holding up a shirt to her chest, presumably asking her boyfriend if he liked it. As he smiled and nodded, I could sense that he wasn’t having any fun. I’ve been there before. You’re girlfriend wants to try on everything in the store, when all you want to do is head over to GameStop and play some demos. The fact that he was wearing what looked like a tattered, old Metallica shirt also made me think that he wasn’t a big fan of this store to begin with.

Upon reaching the fitting rooms, the sales clerk asked me how many items I had.

“Four.” I said already regretting the fact that I was even trying them on.

“Okay.” She said as she led me to my fitting room. “Are you aware of the special we have on our graphic tees right now?”

“Yes.” I said with a smile. “Thank you.”

I was more than aware of the sale. That is what brought me here the first time, after all. I stepped into the fitting room and tried on the garments I had selected. I quickly convinced myself that I just don’t look good in white shirts, thus removing two items from my possible purchase list. Next, I tried on the pants: they were a perfect fit. I decided to wait until they were on sale though. Finally, the shirt I had originally come to exchange. Again, a perfect fit.

As I walked out of the fitting rooms I noticed that the same man I saw earlier was sitting on the giant leather sofas by the waiting area. He was watching the giant plasma T.V. on the wall letting us know that the song currently blasting out of the JBL speakers all over the store was “The Recluse” by Cursive: one of my favorite songs. I assumed he was waiting for his girlfriend to come out in any number of outfits to get his “valuable” opinion. I figured he’d probably say she looked good in anything she walked out wearing. I just laughed to myself and made my way to the registers.

The cashier was talking to another girl that was working with her as I set my items down. I couldn’t help but notice how attractive both of these girls were. In fact, all of the girls that were working that day were quite attractive. I often wondered if this was done on purpose just to get more men to shop there. I’ve been told by a few of my female friends that worked at Abercrombie that they use such tactics. I now have no doubt.

“Did you finally find a new shirt?” She asked as she turned away from her coworker.

“Yeah, same one.” I said.

“Would you like to try this one on and make sure it fits right?”

“I already did.” I replied almost triumphantly.

I could sense that she was most likely using tactics that they had taught her to keep customers in the store for as long as possible. But I had already been here long enough. As she finished ringing up my items, I felt satisfied with my level of service. She handed me my bag and smiled one last time.

“Here you go.” She said. “Have a nice day.”