Shop till we drop

2008-12-26 00:00

When was the last time you read a John Updike novel cover to cover in a single sitting? Or even a John Updike book jacket cover to cover in a single sitting?

While dour eggheads are forever forecasting apocalypse borne of our infatuation with images over text, it should be obvious by now that reading is grossly overrated. For most people, bookstores are where you get lattes and Burt’s Bees sampler kits, and yet life just keeps getting better and better.

In previous centuries, apparently, everyone was so engrossed in Paradise Lost or The Song of Hiawatha they never got around to inventing the Internet, organic frozen dinners, reality TV: we haven’t made the same mistake.

And yet can we really say that our diminishing attention spans don’t pose grave problems? When we lost our ability to read difficult, wordy, psychologically complex novels, only their authors had cause for alarm.

When we lost our ability to sit through an episode of Seinfeld, or make it past the first quarter of the Super Bowl, it was slightly disturbing, but hardly the end of the world.

In fact, some iconoclastic experts even stepped forth to reassure us that our hummingbird minds were an upgrade, not a flaw. An inability to focus simply meant we were multi-tasking, our synapses were firing on all cylinders.

We were getting smarter, faster, more efficient, just like the computer chips that facilitated our endless mental hopscotching.

But have you noticed that shopping has become the new reading, the thing we no longer have the patience to do in the deep, serious, completely engaged way we once did?

Except during the holiday season, how often do you spend entire afternoons completely immersed in traditional encyclopaedias of commerce, piling your shopping cart high with kitchen appliances, office supplies, sweaters and tennis shoes, wine, DVDs?

Even more specialised stores are beginning to seem too complicated to bother with — do you want a garlic pretzel, a raisin pretzel, a pretzel dog? That’s too much information to process! You might as well just dust the latest Phillip Roth novel with a scrumptious cinnamon coating and tell us to eat that.

Online, however, there are websites that are more geared toward our short-circuited attention spans. They have names like Whiskeymilitia.com, Steepandcheap.com, Chainlove.com.

They sell one and only one item at a time, for a discount, until the item is gone. A site called Woot.com introduced the concept to the web in 2004, focusing mostly on electronics, putting new items for sale up at midnight, creating urgency for items no one had previously shown much interest in by slashing prices and insisting the time to act was now.

At first it seemed like a harmless novelty, no different than shopping TV channels. But these are aimed at ageing shut-ins with an unquenchable hunger for simulated gemstones set in goldtone bangle bracelets. Woot.com and its ilk are designed to appeal to trendy twenty-somethings, white-collar goof-offs still on the upward curve of their earning power.

In 10 years or so, they’ll be the engines driving our economy, but already regular shopping is too boring for them. To hold their interest, they demand simpler, more game-like shopping experiences, the commercial equivalent of a blog post.

In the short run, the mindless impulse buys these sites inspire may be good for the economy. But the fact that such sites even exist means that pallets and pallets of HP printers, Dyson vacuums, LCD flatscreens, and ultra-light two-person tents are going unpurchased at traditional retail outlets — because more and more consumers find such places too dull and complicated to endure. As more and more of us start shopping the new way, shopping the old way will get less and less appealing.

Eventually, bargain stores will be forced to shed employees and scale back operations, just like newspapers and record labels and TV networks are doing now. Next, the manufacturers who depend on these traditional retail outlets will falter, and where will the bargains come from then? To write a snarky blog post about the coverage of the New York Times’s Iraq coverage, you need the New York Times. To offer Vornado Zippi fans at $5 apiece, you need someone who was trying to sell them for $20 apiece.

Luckily, by the time our indifference to old-fashioned shopping sends us into a worldwide depression, we’ll be so incapable of sustained thought we’ll barely even notice. At least until the French Fry Store runs out of French fries, and the taps at the Beer Store run dry.

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