Can the Shopping Gene Be Reactivated?


A while ago, there was an interesting discussion here on whether consumer behavior will change following the recession. A worth-reading take on this comes from this New York Times magazine “fashion” feature (warning: annoying website), which interviews neurophycisists about how people’s brains react in response to luxury goods. There’s definitely been a change, says researcher George Lewis:


 His 36 subjects, white consumers including doctors and lawyers who maintain reasonable purchase power, were hooked up to QEEG (quantitative electroencephalography) and eye-tracking equipment to record their responses to items like Cartier jewelry, Patek Philippe watches, Gucci handbags, shoes by Jimmy Choo, Fendi and Miu Miu, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Mercedes-Benz sports cars.


Lewis saw positive emotional responses — excitement, arousal and high levels of attention — indicating that the desire for the products was still there, but he also witnessed an increase in stress that he had not seen in a study done before the recession. This indicated to him that the prospect of actually purchasing these items was setting off negative feelings in two regions of the brain, the prefrontal cortex and the insula.


‘‘In the past they would see [a luxury product] and be excited by it,’’ says Lewis, who conducted similar studies during the oil crisis of the 1970s and then again after the dot-com bust in 2000. ‘‘Now they see it, they are conflicted about it, and there is less motivation to buy it.’’


This shows that people don’t necessarily perceive these luxury products as worth their money. They see them as indulgences, and now is not the time to indulge. There has also been a surprising (at least to me) backlash against the excesses of conspicuous consumption:


What a minority fringe group once felt about consumption, [a researcher] says, a fairly large percentage of people now feel: ‘‘that these kind of purchases are really unacceptable morally.’’


This definitely seems to be an emerging consensus: Consumers are gravitating more practical items, that don’t emphasize “bling” but are about emotion and a “greater meaning.” No one is sure whether this mind-set will out-last the recession, but it definitely seems to be the attitude now.


And then there’s this:


Designers and retailers also have one particularly beneficial neurological fact on their side: the brain is stimulated by novelty, so consumers will always seek innovation and new products, like monkeys feverishly searching for new fruits in the jungle.


“Novelty” is not exactly one of our industry’s strong points, but definitely something to keep in mind …

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JCK News Director