04/08/2014 11:08 BST | Updated 30/09/2014 06:59 BST

Shoppers of the World: Unite and Take Over


Earlier this month, we stepped aboard the H.M.S. Saxifrage in London for a half-day summit, The Big Shopping Pop-Up. The summit was designed to prompt a different kind of conversation around retail and shopping between industry heavyweights, cultural experts and retail leaders. On the bank of the River Thames, our conversation was fuelled by insights released in McCann Truth Central's global report, The Truth About Shopping.*

During an afternoon lab session dedicated to shopping innovations, Lulu Guinness reminded the audience, "Don't forget about fun! Shopping is about fun!" Ms. Guinness may have struck the proverbial nail on the head when it comes to innovations in shopping. 'Shopping' as a uniquely human practice has not always held the promise of 'fun' - even a cursory review of blockbuster gladiator films renders the ancient marketplace as a fraught and chaotic universe of treacherous demands. Possibly the only constant of the agora and today's market is that living people are involved.


Even the single word that we use to describe our undertakings at Westfield Malls, Harrods, or at the local Aldi has changed radically across time. Consider that in the 17th C., 'shopping' originally referred to the act of imprisonment. Whereas today, nearly 70% of our global respondents, from Chile to China, expect to be inspired by the experience of 'shopping.' The contrast of this etymological heritage and our contemporary reality indexes a naked truth about shopping: it is a practice that extends across a dialectics of freedom and constraint, choice and duty, liberation and oppression.

This dialectic surfaced repeatedly in the course of the research that led to the publication and launch of The Truth about Shopping report. At one phase during the research, my team invited a group of British consumers to a co-creation workshop at our offices in London. Those consumers were tasked with the challenge of constructing an illustrated history of shopping beginning with the 1950s and ending in post-2020. Throughout the 70 years rendered in the timeline, the act of shopping moved from a 'bare necessity' with 'limited choices and access' to a 'leisure practice' featuring 'excessive choice' today.


While we might experience 'shopping as fun' today, our consumers rendered the near future of shopping as 'cold, efficient, anti-social, and automated.' More than half of our 10,000 global respondents find that mobile technologies are taking the 'fun' out of shopping. And, increasingly, we are worried that 'filter bubbles' will deny us the basic freedom of discovery. In fact, ¾ of our global respondents are wary of the benefits of algorithmic predictability derived from big data. Deprived of the social, the sensorial, and the serendipitous: what will the future of shopping promise?

Global movements such as Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (B.D.S) may have something to teach us about the future of 'shopping'. Not only does the B.D.S movement operate upon the twin logics of shopping as we know it: that is, freedom ('fun') and oppression ('bare necessity'), but it also suggests that what we're doing when we're shopping is not merely a cycle of browse, purchase and consume. Sure, we purchase from time to time, but we are also doing more than what this cycle suggests: we are liberating, we are oppressing, we are exercising an ideology of what matters most to us today.


'Shopping', in fact, seems a rather quaint way of referring to a practice that is central to how we organize the world that we live in and what we deem as vital. Sure, we are purchasing products now and then. But does sitting in one's sitting room and dropping products into a virtual basket qualify as shopping? Does consciously not purchasing a range of products or brands register as shopping? Does simply having fun count as shopping? Does the crowd-funding activity of more than a quarter of our global respondents fit into the category of 'shopping' as we know it?

All of this suggests that in addition to revisiting some of the terminology that we use when we speak about 'shopping,' pioneering brands and companies should consider how the act and practice of 'shopping' is increasingly not about products or shops, but more importantly about the sensorial, the social, and the serendipitous factors that contribute to our experiences of freedom and oppression. These are certainly not just metaphors: from the rolezinhos who gather in protest in Brazilian shopping malls to the stocking of halal products on leading retailers' shelves, the potential for 'shopping' to make, and unmake, the world is a promise within reach.

*This essay is based on findings drawn from the McCann Truth Central global report, The Truth about Shopping. The study involved qualitative and quantitative research in 13 major economies including more than 10,000 interviews and daylong co-creation workshops with consumers. McCann Truth Central is McCann's global intelligence unit, with representation in more than 100 countries around the world.