Incidents in a Mall
# 4 The Key to Happiness
Happiness: the word does not seem immediately synonymous with market research, but since late 50s, corporations have been keen to tap into and exploit this illusive phenomenon in the search for what they call ‘the key to happiness’. This was, in fact, the name of an extensive market survey, conducted in 2002 by a shoe manufacturer, with over five hundred focus groups and two thousands head-to-head interviews, know as ‘depths’.
The results, however, proved both disappointing and disturbing. None more so perhaps, than the interview conducted with Susan Thompson, of Shawlands, Glasgow, thirty-four years old, childless and recently divorced.
Susan openly admitted that the only reason she was doing the interview was because she had too much time on her hands after having lost her job at Debenhams. The interviewer guided her back to the first question: What was the product in your happiest retail experience, ever?
Susan said they were a pair of shoes, very special, maybe called Mary-Janes, with these delicate double straps, which were quite daring and this three-inch heel, in this off-white colour by the designer known as Chloe.
The interviewer asked where the point of purchase had been and was told a long story about how Susan had seen these in a window the year before, and they reminded her of her student days when she was quite ‘alternative’, but they were too expensive and then of course there was the heel. This was when she was married and her hubby, James, had been quite short. And they couldn’t conceive, because of his tubes, but that was a long story. Anyway, so she decided to do a bit of self-esteem shopping.
Was that when you found your perfect Chloe shoes? the interviewer asked.
No, no, no, Susan said. They were a whole year out of date by then and everyone was wearing pumps or stilettos. Me in pumps, in stilettos? So I was pretty depressed, not just about that but other things, totally slash my wrists actually, if you must know.
The interviewer tried to lead her back.
So when did you come across your happy purchase?
And here Susan digressed – a friend of hers, Debby, knew about her fancying these Chloe shoes and bought herself a pair online; and that pissed her off, because Debby was always copying her and getting there first, and there was no chance of borrowing them from Debbie because she was a size three. And anyway, this was a year before and they’d stopped even making them.
The interviewer, pen and fact-form in hand, pressed the question as to where and when.
Susan went off on another tangent and talked about how hard it was being single again and online dating and going to Cumbernauld for this job interview and then on this date with this guy and waking up in his bed, and he was too square and wore too much aftershave, and she felt a bit sordid and sick to her stomach; but then before getting her bus back she went to the shopping centre, just because it was next to the bus station, and she had time to kill, but she didn’t want to do it in there because the bus station was . . . well, not exactly hygienic.
Well, she was just killing a bit of time, like she said, and watching all the lassies and how much slimmer and trendier they were, and feeling a bit old and sad and fat – the usual – but then, by the doors of John Lewis, on this discount rack – she couldn’t believe it, in the right colour, which might actually be called teal and not off-white, and her size, they were her size, a nine – she had large feet and James had never liked that – and they were only a fifth of the original price and the sign said End of Line Clearance. So this was, the last pair of Chloe shoes in the world, and like, only thirty quid.
OK, said the interviewer, So, price is a factor for you, and exclusivity?
Naw, naw, naw, Susan said, the fact was, right . . . There was this old dear in this fancy coat and as soon as she saw her looking at them the old cow picked them up and walked right to the tills.
So I went up to her, what you think I said?
Here the interviewer was thrown as it was unusual for an interviewee to ask questions, over and above the usual ones about how much they would be getting paid and when the interview would be over and if they would be getting their promised free gift pack.
Right, Susan said. So, I’m running after her and I don’t normally use language like this . . .
So I said, excuse me, those are MINE, by the way. I mean this is totally not me, but I’d wanted these shoes for over a year, right?
OK . . . so this was your happiest, retail experience?
Yeah, no, well the old bitch wouldn’t let go, so were both tugging at them and I say – If you don’t stop that you’re going to break them! Because they have these lovely wee straps, right? And, so I yell at her … I can’t believe I actually said this . . .
Go on. What did you say?
I said, If you don’t give me them right now, I’ll smash your fat fucking face and stick it right up you arse!
. . . OK.
I’m sorry, I can’t believe I… it was dreadful.
So, did you . . .?
Oh, yes, I mean no, she let go and ran off, and I paid for them and that was that.
This was your happiest retail experience . . . ever?
Aye, absolutely. Yes. [Here she paused.] Mind you, afterwards [laughter] I felt just a wee bit silly, because really, they were just a pair of shoes, right, and to be honest the three straps were a bit daft looking.
Susan received her complimentary gift pack of perfumes and lotions and a cheque for fifty pounds from a subsidiary co-sponsor. It was observed that she was not wearing her favourite shoes during the course of the discussion (she commented in fact that she had never worn them and probably never would). It was also noted that she did not agree to sign up for further interviews on similar products in the future.
The findings of this session, and many others like it from the same study, pointed to some alarming facts about happiness and consumer choice.
Rather surprisingly, factors such as affordable prices, a pleasant retail environment and easy access to a wide range of fashionable up-to-date products scored low on the happiness scale.
In the one-to-ten rating, every time, what hit the top – and concurrent experiments by the Psychology department of Yale University on the phenomenon known as ‘Peak Experience’ backed this up – was the same story of struggle: of an individual overcoming terrible odds to finally gain a victory over their competitors to possess their desired product. The greater the obstacle, the greater the happiness. All factors, it must be said, common to the earliest stages of agrarian markets, with seasonal goods and scarcities, to haggling and fighting; and in our modern era, to food queues, looting and revolution.
Ironically, following this logic to its conclusion, corporations would have to suppress the mass-market availability which they have spent over a hundred years trying to streamline and to revert to, or at least simulate a regression to, a pre-consumerist era in which scarcity and violent struggle are part of the retail experience. Of course it was neither advisable nor desirable to try to re-create any of these conditions within a modern retail environment so the study was, it was claimed, shelved.
It must be noted, however, that a number of retailers seem to have taken on board the results, albeit in test scenarios. Most notably Microsoft, who ‘manufactured a scarcity’ by imposing a finite number on a mass-manufactured product on first day of release, causing stampeding and violent conflicts in over fifty locations.
Consider also, the phenomenon of mass-discount stores such as TK Max and WallMart, in which designer labelled goods retail at discounted prices ‘hidden’ among cheap produce, inducing similar experiences of ‘accidental find’ and ‘combative covetousness’.
Notable also is the queue – some with sleeping bags, all wearing nothing but lingerie – awaiting the opening sale of La Senza, Charing Cross, London (Prizes given to the first hundred entrants). This effect is also used during the annual Black Friday (the first day of the winter sales in America) which in 2010, went ‘out of control’ with over two hundred reported injuries. Footage reveals shoppers racing each other, fighting, tripping each other up, hitting each other with packaging and products, hoarding goods and leaving stores with faces expressing something close to religious ecstasy.
Images by Ewan Morrison, fiction featured in Edinburgh Review 133: Dark Things as Bright.