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'Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What'

Retailers are holding their breath and shoppers are holding on to their wallets as "Black Friday" nears. More than 172 million shoppers either hit the malls or the keyboards for last year's Black Friday weekend according to the National Retail Federation - shelling out $41 billion – and that was in the midst of the unfolding financial crisis and recession!

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In the new book, "Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What," author Lee Eisenberg explains "why we buy" in addition to revealing many other shopping secrets including:

  • Why shopping makes us happy
  • The significance behind what we buy
  • What constitutes a good buy
  • The differences in shopping behaviors - including: Impulsive shopping v. Compulsive buying, Men v. Women & Cheapskates v. Spendthrifts
  • Shopping trends and forecasting
  • Changes in the retail environment
  • And perfect for this time of year - What makes the perfect gift

Eisenberg is an experienced retailer having been a senior executive at Lands' End, and currently a consultant for several women's brands. And, in order to experience the madness of the holiday shopping season, he even worked at Target as a floor walker.

Guest Author Blog
Guest Author Blog

Guest Author Blog: My life as a Target Floorwalker by Lee Eisenberg is the author of the newly published Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What

Researching a book on the American way of buying and selling, I decided it would be helpful to have some first-hand retail experience. So, with no small degree of trepidation I applied for, and won, a job as a seasonal floorwalker at a huge, new Target store on the north side of Chicago. Reporting to work bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I felt bizarrely out-of-place: a middle-aged guy in a bright red shirt and name badge, old enough to have grandfathered nearly all of my fellow workers. But the experience turned out to be rewarding, and not just because I learned how to pack and accurately fire a handheld barcode reader. My weeks there gave me enduring insights into what’s life looks like from the other side of the counter. Some key takeaways:

1. However placid store life seems on the surface, a big retail chain has to work hard to hold things together.

Consumer Nation Holiday Central Edition
Consumer Nation Holiday Central Edition

While we customers gripe about how there’s never anyone around to offer help when we need it, the store is continuously fighting a staggering rate of worker turnover. This is one of the many reasons Target relentlessly and laudably tries to keep morale high, pushes the line internally that us workers aren’t workers, we’re “team members”. I learned that it’s a bear to keep team members from hitting on each other, stealing merchandise, sneaking a smoke behind the dumpster, when they should be offering guidance to us. A major portion of my orientation consisted of watching consciousness-raising videos that underscored the need for mutual respect and personal responsibility as regards sexual harassment, “asset protection” (shoplifting), racial tolerance, safety and security, and assorted threats to day-to-day team harmony. (Key Target employee credo: "THE STRENGTH OF MANY. THE POWER OF ONE.”)

2. Common sense is a store worker’s best defense.

At one point during my orientation, the trainer flashed a photo on the TV monitor: it showed a mock, armed robbery taking place at the register. The miscreant had a handgun partially concealed in his pocket, while the cashier was about to hand over a fat wad of bills. The trainer asked us to guess how much money was in that wad. Go figure. Were they ones, hundreds, it was hard to tell. So I just took a wild guess: “$500?” “Two thousand dollars,” the trainer responded. "Do you know how long it takes Target to take in $2,000?” He paused for dramatic effect. “Maybe half-a-second." Moral: team members are expected to be helpful to guests, not crime-stopping superheroes. The goal is not to nab a thief but allow the bad guy to beat it out of the store as quickly as possible. Fine with me.

3. Social and ethical issues preoccupy managers in retail stores, for which I give Target particular credit.

I especially admired the attention Target pays to teaching new team members how to deal with disabled guests (Target insists that its customers be referred to, and treated as, “guests.”) Never shout when talking to a hearing impaired guest at the Guest Services desk -- politely offer a pad and pencil, if needed. Never touch a disabled guest’s wheel chair – touching a wheel chair is no different from touching the guest herself. Never address a disabled guest’s aide and ignore the guest; address the aide and the guest, bending down, leaning over, if need be, to make sure the guest knows you’re aware of his existence.

4. However praiseworthy all that consciousness-raising, I discovered there was no time allotted to product training.

Stanley Marcus, who built Neiman Marcus and until his death in 2002 was the grandest of merchant grandees, would not approve. Target team members are not expected to hold court on why this crock pot out-crocks that crock pot. At Target, and at its competitors I presume, you are trained to be a human global positioning system unto yourself. I was instructed, again and again, never to say “May I help you?” Instead, the correct opening line when confronting a guest: “Can I help you find something?” Those six words – no substitutions allowed – are tantamount to a company trademark, no less critical to Target’s identity than its big red bull’s-eye. What’s the reasoning here? A Target-sized store, it goes without saying, is a very large place, and though it’s well lighted, with wide aisles and excellent signage, it’s easy for a guest to become lost, overwhelmed, confused, antsy, angry. If one’s lost, overwhelmed, confused, antsy, angry, there’s an excellent chance one is likely to find Target in violation of the company’s highest strategic priority: to make shopping at Target “FAST, FUN, AND FRIENDLY.” “FUN” and “FRIENDLY” are key ingredients in trying to keep Wal-Mart -- six times Target’s size -- at bay. “FAST” is first for good reason: shopper surveys cite “slow checkout lanes” as the predominant reason most of us guests choose to avoid a certain store, our waiting-time fuse being roughly four- minutes long. (Compare that to how long, on average, we’re willing to wait in a hospital emergency room: three-and-a-half hours, by some accounts.)

5. Wants versus needs: what’s the difference, anyway?

Dutifully, I did what I could in the service of FAST. FUN. AND FRIENDLY. A smile on my face, I speedily price-scanned a jug of Clorox for an elderly guest dressed in a sari. Jauntily, I whisked a young, muscular Hispanic guest over to the kitchenware section, where he considered the purchase of a Jack LaLanne power juicer with a 3600-RPM whisper-quiet motor. I didn’t actually know that the power juicer was equipped with a whisper-quiet motor, I read it on the box as the guest was tried to decide whether he really needed a juicer, or maybe just wanted a juicer. Do I need it, or do I just want it? That’s really the question, isn’t it? That came to me as I watched a steady of stream guests graze Target’s vast selection of goods, reading labels, considering prices, dropping some items into their baskets, putting others back on the shelves, hunting, gathering, or just moving on, depending on that day’s mood or budget. Do I need it, or do I just want it? A tricky one, that question. So I mothballed the red shirt, handed in my name badge, and set off across America, in search of answers.

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Lee Eisenberg, Author, Shopitism

Lee Eisenberg is the author of the newly published Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What (Free Press).

Eisenberg's last book the New York Times bestseller The Number: A Completely Different Way to Think About the Rest of Your Life, was chosen by BusinessWeek as one of the best books of 2006.

For further details, excerpts, and the author’s blog, visit LeeEisenberg.com.

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