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The essay question is “Shopping is not merely the acquisition of things, it is the buying of identity’ (Clammer qtd. in Lewis and Bridger 2001: 130). Discuss this statement with reference to your own examples.”


Shopping Is Not Merely the Acquisition of Things, It Is the Buying of Identity

Imagine a world devoid of trade. Such a world would not have developed as it is today, whereby it is experiencing trade growth that is transforming it into a global village. People are able to order and purchase goods across oceans owing to the advent of the Internet and communication technology. But what does the increased shopping of things symbolize? According to Clammer, shopping is not merely the acquisition of things; rather, it is the buying of identity (Lewis and Bridger 2001).

            A cursory look around any modern town is likely to reveal a person sporting shoes belonging to the Nike brand or any other of the world’s most brands. One may then construe that the observed person appreciates the heritage and authenticity associated with the particular brand. As such, the chosen brand often defines the person in terms of who he is and what he enjoys most. Products often signal the consumer’s identity and enable him/her to express vital information about their personality to themselves and to other people. According to Wattanasuwan (2005), people make consumption choices based on the product’s value and its symbolic implication. As such, consumption helps in creating and sustaining one’s self and locating them in society. This essay endeavours to discuss this statement with reference to my own examples. The paper begins by describing key terms such as consumption and product identity before later on describing the relationship between identity shopping and consumption.

Consumerism and Identity

            Many researchers in the field of consumer behaviour have acknowledged the interplay between consumer purchasing behaviours and self-identity, indicating that customers buy products that fall in line with their self-image (Escalas and Bettman 2005). In order to understand consumer identity, it is important to define key terms such as self-identity. Ilaw (2014) argues that the term “self” connotes what and who a person is. As such, it represents the totality of one’s beliefs, perception and attitudes of oneself that shape his/her behaviour. Leary and Tangney (2003) posit that self-concept or self-identity entail how individuals realize and express themselves.

            Brands happen to be associated to the self once consumers feel that they are helping them achieve self-motivated goals. Consumer identity denotes the spending patterns through which customers express themselves. With today’s increasing consumerism, identity is no longer seen as unitary and fixed but as malleable and multiple product of varying relationships to multiple in-groups and out-groups. Breakwell (2010) posits that the guiding principles of identity processes are culturally specific and vary across situations and eras. They include individual desire for distinctiveness, continuity, self-esteem and self-efficacy.  

            Firat et al. (2013, p. 183) define consumption as “the act of satisfying cultural, social, physiological and psychological needs”. Consumption is formed by consumer purchasing choices or decisions. Relatedly, Jackson (2005) argues that consumption plays different roles in the modern-day society, and these range from satisfying needs for housing, food, recreation, transport, leisure inter alia. Besides, it is increasingly being implicated in defining social status in terms of identity formation processes as well as social identification and distinction (Jackson, 2005). Ruvio and Belk (2013) point out that consumption has become a vital factor in collective and personal identity projects across the world especially in individualistic cultures. For Hurth (2012), human desire for novelty is a key driver for consumption and recurring acts of purchasing certain products.

            Consumerism is defined as an inclination towards the buying of consumer goods and services or a cultural preoccupation with material goods as the gateway to a good life. The development of consumerism is intertwined with the growth and expression of individual identities and industrialization of the economy. Miles (2015) argues that shopping is minimally associated with the act of buying goods. For him, consumer emotions are the main drivers of consumer consumption practices and result from imagination based on concrete social relationships.  As such, a consumer is pushed into a world of imagination and identity making resulting from his/her shopping experiences. This in turn puts the consumers in close contact with their self-identity meaning that are merely choosing their new identities on the shelves as they purchase various consumables.

            Guiry and Lutz (2000) argue that shopping is a way of life with a major cultural significance owing to the energy and time consumers devote to it to satisfy their needs. Many consumers of today drawn from all ages tend to spend most of their time in shopping malls than anywhere else apart from home, school and work. This is because shopping malls have extended the coverage of products they offer to include fast-food courts, video arcades, restaurants, hair salons and health clubs, just to mention a few, on a twenty-four hour basis, during weekends as well as holidays. Guiry and Lutz (2000) further observe that shopping may be an essential part of a consumer’s extended self when it entails considerable symbolic implication and serves as a way of self-affirmation, communication, cultivation and enhancement.

            Evidently, we live in a world that upholds the notion that one’s individuality is founded on a system that propagates material possessions. As such, people tend to classify others based on the houses they live in, the vehicles they drive, the clothes they wear and even the groups of people they associate with. This then means that the relationship between consumption and self-identity is both a psychological and sociological process. Possessions of products go beyond their utilitarian and material functions by providing a basis for symbolic connotations that allow consumers to express themselves to others. As such, consumers assert their identities through available regular and free-wheeling choices.            According to Mathur (2003), luxury commodities and commercial brands act as signifiers of legitimized consumer culture and identity as evidenced by high class spending and articulation in day-by-day lives of many individuals in society. Consumers express themselves to others on a daily basis using the brands they buy. Thus, they strive to distinguish themselves from others by making unique choices or adopting unique tastes (Tian and McKenzie 2001). It is also common for people to abandon their preferred tastes once they feel that too many individuals or the wrong category of individuals have adopted those tastes. For example, car brands that are quite popular and are often purchased by different categories of people, for example, the Honda Accord car model, may end up not communicating the specific associations person using it would like to portray. In another example, I often like to think myself as a fashion setter, often donning designer watchers and shoes, and so I normally lose interest in certain products immediately they flood the market.

            Escalas and Bettman (2005) argue that consumers are likely to accept meanings from brands that have links to an in-group while rejecting meanings linked to an out-group. Individual tastes about certain brands communicate identity through their association with the people who use them (Muniz and O’Guinn 2001). For instance, back in junior school, I was part of a clique who considered themselves sporty. Since wearing Asics shoes tended to be the in-thing back then, I would pester my parents to buy me Asics shoes to signify how sporty I was.

            Muniz and Hamer (2001) argue that consumers tend to express who they are by avoiding certain products. On the same note, Banister and Hogg (2004) report that they normally shun products associated with negative symbolic connotations. I concur with these researchers because I would avoid wearing baggy t-shirts, a trend associated with hip-hop lovers since I hated pop music back then. In another example, Wonacott (2004) posits that residents of Shanghai, China often avoid buying the Volkswagen Santanas brand of car because they are a favourite first car for the suburban rich.

            As demonstrated in this discussion, individuals often change their preferred products just to make sure that other people make desirable identity conclusions about them. For instance, one may start appreciating a certain product just to ensure that people identify the product with him. Renowned celebrities and athletes play a crucial role in influencing customers especially when they endorse certain products. Celebrities such as Antonio Banderas, David Beckham, Elizabeth Taylor and Britney Spears, just to mention a few, have in the past signed lucrative contracts with perfume manufacturers in an effort to create a popular association between their names and perfumes’ signature scents. According to Whitelocks (2011), the White Diamonds cologne that has for a long time been endorsed by Elizabeth Taylor remains the best-selling celebrity-endorsed perfume since its introduction in 1991.

            The strategy of using celebrities to advertise products goes a long way in building identities around those brands. For instance, I have always admired Antonio Banderas acting especially on his Legend of Zorro movie. While my physique would never match his, I often thought that maybe I would feel like a superman if I wore the same perfume fragrance that he endorses (Christian Dior).  However, I tried doing it once, but it did not work; the fragrance was so strong on me that I ended up abandoning it. But no sooner had he endorsed his new fragrance called Antonio than I found myself wanting to try it out as well. Interesting to note is that some of my friends and family members also get tempted to try out new fragrances that have been endorsed by renowned celebrities.

            A closer look at the automotive industry also serves to show that shopping is not merely the acquisition of cars but buying one’s identity as well. People often identify with brands not only due to the distinctive features they offer but also the explicit desire or intention to conform to certain identities. For instance, while most people are happy to drive affordable Ford, Nissan or Toyota vehicles, I would love to drive a Bentley GT Continental, Maybach, Ferrari F430 or Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead vehicle if circumstances would allow. This looks like a crazy thought considering that I am not superrich, but it reflects the aspirations of millions of people who would aspire to be seen driving these expensive vehicles and identified with the likes of ultra-rich celebrities such as David Beckham and P Diddy. While the vehicles would satisfy my transport needs, the elegance that comes with them would also fulfil my identity needs.

            With the emergence of numerous ecommerce platforms such as Amazon, business organizations are increasingly shifting their focus from selling goods and services to selling identities. Most business websites that seek to market their products cite the elegance that they serve their clients with above actual product features. Business organizations are increasingly seeking to become established brands in order to be able to sell their identities to potential and existing clientele. Many brands have in fact become successful by creating narratives one’s self by, among other strategies, anchoring personalities in those brands.

             In conclusion, shopping is no longer an act of purchasing goods and services, but an act of buying identity. This pursuit is based on the understanding that many people spend most of their time window-shopping or in shopping sprees. With increased opportunities for online shopping and aggressive advertisement across all media platforms, traders are increasingly selling out their brands by simply passing them off as identities to potential and existing clientele. This has in turn encouraged consumers to buy products for use in identifying with certain personalities as opposed to meeting instrumental needs. The situation is further compounded by increased celebrity endorsements of products which motivate people to purchase the endorsed products so that they can feel that they belong. As Ball and Tasaki (1992) indicate, possession of certain brands by customers can be used to satisfy one’s psychological needs, for example, by establishing one’s self concept, allowing one to differentiate oneself, expressing one’s self-identity and asserting one’s personality.

Reference List

Ball, A D and Tasaki, L H (1992) ‘The role and measurement of attachment in             Consumer Behaviour’, Journal of Consumer Psychology, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 155–            172.

Banister, E N and Hogg, M K (2004) ‘Negative Symbolic Consumption and   Consumers’ Drive for Self Esteem,’European Journal of Marketing, vol. 38, no. 7, pp. 850-868.

Breakwell, G M (2010) Resisting Representations and Identity Processes. Papers on Social Representations, vol. 19, pp. 6.1-6.11 

Escalas, J E and Bettman, J R (2005) ‘Self-Construal, Reference Groups, and Brand       Meaning’, Journal of Consumer Research, 32, pp. 378-389.

 Guiry, M and Lutz, R (2000) Recreational Shopper Identity: Implications of Recreational Shopping for Consumer Self-Definition, Web.  

Hurth, V (2012) Factors influencing environmentally-significant consumption by      higher-income households: A multi-method study of South Devon for social    marketing application, PhD Thesis, University of Exeter.          

Ilaw, M (2014) ‘Who You Are Affects What You Buy: The Influence of Consumer    Identity on Brand Preferences,’ Elon Journal of undergraduate research in      communications, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 1-3.

Jackson, T (2005) Motivating Sustainable Consumption: A Review of Evidence on Consumer Behaviour and Behavioural Change. A Report to the Sustainable Development Research Network, Centre for Environmental Strategies, Surrey.

Mathur, N (2013) Consumer Culture, Modernity and Identity. Sage Publications, New Delhi.

Miles, S (2015) Retail and the Artifice of Social Change, Routledge, London

Muniz, A M and O’Guinn, T C (2001) ‘Brand Community’, Journal of Consumer             Research, vol. 27, no. 4, pp. 412-432.

Ruvio, A and Belk, R (2013) The Routledge companion to identity and consumption.             Routledge.  London

Tian, K and McKenzie, K (2001) ‘The Long-Term Predictive Validity of Consumers’ Need for Uniqueness Scale’,Journal of Consumer Psychology, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 171 – 193. 

Wattanasuwan, K (2005) ‘The Self and Symbolic Consumption’, Journal of American             Academy of Business, Cambridge, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 179-184.

Whitelocks, S (2011) ‘How Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds is still the best-selling celebrity fragrance of all time – 20 years after it first launched’, Daily Mail, March 25, 2011.

Wonacott, P (2004) ‘China’s Buick Infatuation: The Stodgy American Auto is a Pre-            Revolutionary Icon for Booming Middle Class,’Wall Street Journal, July 22, 2004.

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