In college, as my student debt mounted, I worked at a women’s clothing store in downtown Manhattan. It was cavernous, filled with ruffled cardigans and jeans that were made for models and priced for oligarchs. Most of us who worked the floor did not work on commission. In lieu of a financial imperative, the company and our managers relied on stoking a vast mythology about the magic of shopping. “Make her day,” was something they would say to us at the beginning of a shift. Once, a supermodel bought five pairs of $150 pants from me, and when I asked her if she was redoing her wardrobe, she said she was vacationing in a far-off savanna and needed pants that she wouldn’t mind getting dirty.
I recently asked my mom if she thought she’d shop as much now if she had never worked in retail. She thought for a minute, and then said, “No, probably not.” Perhaps I was doomed to be a materialist. Really, the only salient shift in my personal shopping habits during these past 2.6 decades is that the act, which used to occur in or near the store where I worked (grocery, women’s clothing), now occurs almost exclusively while I’m sitting at my desk, where I am all of the time.
There are people who see online shopping as a malevolent influence, probably because it flourishes under conditions not dissimilar to a toxic relationship: boundless manipulation. Showing up uninvited (“Did you leave something in your cart?”) and doling out flattery (“You have great taste, Brennan.”) in exchange for cash payments (“…and here are some items that go with what you checked out.”). I get it. Personally, I also love it. Only lately have I begun to worry that shopping might not be the most productive use of my time.
Sure, there are brief, crystalline moments of introspection that occur when we shop, in the solitude of a fitting room or via the zen-blank processing screen of a PayPal transaction. But why, as a teen, pockets rattling with grocery store wages, did every purchase feel more urgent and statement-making than now, in adulthood, when it just feels like something to do? By acquiring more things, am I somehow making myself less of a person, exchanging precious resources for candles that make my home smell like somewhere else? Do my things amount to any… thing?