Book Review

View of consumers is optimistic, not analytic

By Joseph Rosenbloom
January 1, 2010

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The mythology of ever-rising housing prices set the stage for the economic collapse of the past decade. The idea that American consumers have an irrepressible zeal to buy is a comparably gladdening axiom. It’s the central premise of Lee Eisenberg’s “Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What.’’ Despite indications that consumer confidence is severely wounded and that beleaguered Americans are saving at a sharply higher rate than they have in the past, he merrily forecasts that this year’s holiday-buying “show’’ will go on like any other. Preliminary results point to anemic Christmas sales at best.

Why does Eisenberg believe the good times are rolling again? He doesn’t say. He presents his upbeat outlook as an article of faith, leaving it to readers to guess why.

That cavalier approach is a pervasive flaw in his quirky, superficial study of why consumers behave as they do. Eisenberg brings impressive, though disparate credentials to the subject, having done stints as editor in chief of Esquire magazine and creative director of clothier Land’s End. His 2006 book about financial planning, “The Number: A Completely Different Way to Think about the Rest of Your Life,’’ was a bestseller that won praise for its imaginative reporting and originality.

In “Shoptimism’’ he writes that America is, “on balance, what it buys.’’ He goes so far as to term the United States “the Consumers’ Republic.’’

If materialist values define America, as Eisenberg suggests, he seems untroubled by that fact or its consequences, say, for the nation’s trade imbalance or environmental excess. He arrives at few insights of his own, parroting instead what he culls from writings of social scientists and marketers and from his interviews with business-school professors and others.

His survey of advertising trends, in which demographic targeting and motivational research play ever more complex roles, is wide ranging and yields nuggets of interest. He notes, for example, that chic magazines such as Vogue depict models with scowls on their faces, which signals a higher social standing, according to one line of research. That bit of salesmanship draws on the results of “methodical’’ academic study, Eisenberg writes.

How online advertising might be reshaping the buyer-seller dynamic is a subject that he deems worthy of only cursory attention. An in-depth look at the circumstances surrounding moles, people paid by advertisers to infiltrate Web discussion groups and plug certain products or companies, might have been illuminating.

In one of the book’s more engaging sections he describes how researchers are scanning brains with magnetic resonance imaging to delve into the neuron-firing differences between tightwads and spendthrifts. Among the findings: The pain that tightwads feel in contemplating a purchase makes them more likely to spring for expedited shipping when the cost is sugarcoated as a “small $5 charge’’ instead of merely a “$5 charge.’’

As for credit-card debt as a factor in profligate spending, Eisenberg writes, “Bingeing is made possible by easy access to credit cards.’’ But he leaves unexamined issues of regulatory efficacy and lobbying that surround credit-card abuse.

In a spirit of evenhandedness he cites arguments in favor of the easy availability of credit, notably that credit cards serve as a financing leveler between haves and have-nots. He then skips along to the next issue, without saying whether the current credit-card regime is a force for good or evil.

Just as he exudes seat-of-the pants optimism about holiday shoppers flocking back to stores, he deals breezily with questions surrounding credit cards, an issue at the heart of American consumerism. The analytical void devalues what might otherwise have been a timely, illuminating book.

Joseph Rosenbloom is a Newton-based freelance writer.

SHOPTIMISM: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What By Lee Eisenberg

Free Press, 352 pp, $26

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