The Cathedrals of Consumption

The Cathedrals of Consumption

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By Javier Garcés Prieto

The development of the “cities of consumption” has transformed the urban geography and the habits of consumption and life of the citizens. For this reason they are considered to be the "cathedrals" of the new "consumer religion" that spreads throughout the planet..

The development of the "cities of consumption" has transformed the urban geography and the habits of consumption and life of citizens. Anywhere on the planet it is possible to find, with the same architecture and distribution of spaces, large surfaces and macro-centers of commerce and leisure. For this reason they are considered to be the “cathedrals” of the new “consumer religion” that spreads across the planet.

Some of the transformations of the consumer society have gone unnoticed by the people who have lived them. But there is a phenomenon that, due to its rapid and extensive implementation, no one has been able to fail to notice: the progressive disappearance of traditional stores and the birth of new shopping centers. If self-service was the first step in the evolution of distribution and sales systems, the development of “shopping and leisure cities” is, together with the generalization of electronic commerce, the last step in this evolution. In Spain, the first hypermarket was launched in 1973 and in 1980 the implementation of macro-centers began, bringing together in the same space, with a service unit (parking, surveillance, transit areas, etc.), a wide offer that includes large areas, shops of all kinds, cinemas, bank offices, restaurants, etc. Since then, their expansion has been (and continues to be) spectacular, and they have spread throughout the world, transforming urban geography and the consumption and living habits of citizens.

A new philosophy of life: "buy to buy"

The development of these macro-commercial centers is the product of a profound transformation of the meaning of purchase. For classical economists, people would have needs to cover (food, clothing, health, etc.) and scarce economic resources. Therefore, they should look for the best purchase decisions to obtain the necessary things with the lowest possible costs.

But commercial and advertising strategies have transformed the emotionality and values ​​of today's consumers, whose behaviors are no longer very rational. They can travel miles to go to a hypermarket and save a few cents (without taking into account the time and money they spend on their journey) and end up with a cart full of superfluous things, bought to take advantage of "great opportunities" to get products that they would never have thought to buy, nor do they need.

Retailers know that, more and more often, it is not the needs that drive the purchase, but that the purchase is an end in itself. The consumer needs to buy, even if they don't need what they buy. If this were not the case, in developed societies, in which people have their needs increasingly covered, there would come a time when their purchases would decrease. But the reality is that when this should happen, the consumer continually seeks or assumes the “new needs” that the consumer society offers them, and continues to buy, even more every day.

Commercial strategies to encourage consumption

For this new consumer, traditional commerce does not work, in which you enter the store knowing what you need and looking for it. In today's shopping centers the consumer enters without a clear idea of ​​what they want to buy or even without wanting to buy anything. The desire to buy and the decision to carry it out will arise within the establishment.

For this reason, commerce is no longer a closed space in which someone asks, behind a counter “what do you want?”. This question would retract consumers who enter looking to see a product that awakens the impulse to buy. The shops have become a place to stay, to stroll, to entertain, which come together creating streets and galleries, artificial but welcoming, in a kind of intermediate street / shop through which you can stroll among benches, artificial plants and trees. In these “streets” you will find small and medium-sized shops, department stores and hypermarkets, as well as cinemas, restaurants and discos or entertainment venues. The premise is very simple: the more time a person spends in these centers and the more space they travel, the more products they will see, the more temptations they will receive and, therefore, the more they will buy.

It should be noted that the feeling of shopping in freedom that current shopping centers offer hides possibilities of manipulating and directing the behavior of consumers for the benefit of merchants like never before. Through the studied organization and distribution of its spaces, elements and products, as well as the preparation of the environment, the consumer is encouraged to buy and it is also that this purchase is directed to certain items. These are the "tricks of the shops" of which we are going to point out some of the most frequent in large stores:

  • Merchants take care of even the smallest details of their establishment: the colors, the lighting and even the background music. They thus try to attract the consumer and make him feel in a pleasant and appropriate environment for consumption. Also the absence of external references to space and time (there are usually neither visible clocks nor windows) contribute to this effect. On the other hand, the simple fact of being surrounded by people who buy produces an intense effect of imitation and collective contagion in the majority of consumers.
  • Placing essential and most frequently sold items (bread, milk, oil, etc.) in distant places, so that the consumer travels long spaces in the establishment.
  • Direct the "flow of the visit" as broadly as possible so that consumers go through a greater number of sections and have greater purchase temptations. To do this, certain "baits" and items in greatest demand are placed at the back of the premises or the entrances and exits of distant establishments are located.
  • Items to be sold are placed on the intermediate shelves, at eye level, to attract the consumer's attention. Items placed in the high and low places of the shelves are hardly seen.
  • The products that you want to sell are placed next to other more expensive ones (so that they appear cheap) or in an intermediate position between others extremely expensive or cheap.
  • The stores are distributed in long, uncut and relatively narrow aisles, in which it is difficult to turn the cart, often large, to stimulate shopping. The consumer, once he enters a corridor with his car, is obliged to travel it to the end, without being able to back up or deviate.
  • The "headlands" of the shelves are very preferred places since to turn around the consumer must slow down their march and pay attention to what surrounds them. That is why this is where the majority of offers are placed.
  • Place attractive posters or claims that refer to the price or the characteristics of the product with large or striking characters. The mere sight of these “fake deals” ads tempts many consumers, even if they don't know whether or not it is a good purchase.
  • Caprice items are placed next to the checkout counters, since it is easy for the consumer to buy these types of products on “impulse” when they finish all the planned purchases, and while they are lining up to pay.

The effectiveness of all these types of techniques is widely proven. As proof of its success, it can be pointed out that between 40 and 70 percent of purchase decisions are made within shopping centers and many of them refer to products that the consumer did not plan to buy when they entered the establishment. Furthermore, 95 percent of consumers who enter a department store without a definite idea of ​​what they want to buy or simply "to look at", end up making a purchase.

Psychological and social effects of new commercial establishments

If before the shops were installed in the streets of the city, now the shops have created their own streets: the galleries become cities and build a new world focused on consumption. They are false cities but they imitate the real ones: it is easy to park, it feels safe and everything is designed to be welcoming and seductive to encourage shopping. The danger of being carried away by this seduction is evident, especially for children and young people who choose them as places where they can spend most of their leisure time. Without stepping on the street, entire families go from the parking lot of their house to the shopping center, and once there they walk, look at windows, shop, go to the cinema or eat in a restaurant, and, thus, without leaving this closed space, they pass whole mornings and afternoons. It seems that the citizen has forgotten that they have been created looking in every detail for only what can make them more attractive and profitable from a commercial point of view, that is, more attractive to purchase.

Certainly the great attraction of these macro-centers is explained, to a large extent, by the negative aspects of the big cities in which often the only thing nearby and easily accessible are those big centers, open long hours, to which you can go without warning. and where you can park easily. Today's cities are increasingly inhumane and less conducive to contact with other people. Seeing friends or family is much more difficult and uncomfortable for them than going to the nearest shopping center.

But the consumer is not aware of the effects of spending a large part of his life in these "inner cities" created by trade. Spending hours and hours surrounded by shop windows, shops and commercial claims has an intense impact on anyone. Consciously or unconsciously, one ends up assuming a consumer vision of life, in which happiness and social success depend on what one buys, and in which it is not possible to have fun without spending money.

The generalization of the use of these macro-commercial centers as places of leisure ends up closing the range of non-consumer interests of people and society. Many consumers say that they go to these centers because there "there is everything." Obviously it is not true that "there is everything." Each meter of these places is designed according to its economic profitability, and therefore they leave out everything that does not produce -directly or indirectly- economic benefit. It will be difficult to find in them, for example, art exhibitions, libraries, conference rooms or places of stays or social gatherings where it is not necessary to consume.

Another sad consequence of the above is that city streets lose their traditional importance as places to stay and meet and citizens use them only as places of passage (often by car) between homes and shopping centers. Locked up in these artificial "cities" of commerce, they ignore the leisure and non-consumer culture that their city can offer them and distance themselves from the possibilities of more humane urban development, in which life and contact with other people take place in open spaces and public.

There has not been enough thought about what the triumph of these "inner cities" created by trade means. Although the feeling of loneliness, insecurity and lack of incentives felt by the modern "urbanite" finds relief in them, it drags him into a materialistic and unsatisfactory lifestyle. Real progress should lead to less superficial, fuller and more sustainable human development.

* Javier Garcés Prieto He is a psychologist, professor of Consumer Psychology and president of the Association for Psychological and Social Studies. This article has been published in the 29th issue of Pueblos magazine, December 2007. -

Video: Cathedrals Of Consumption (July 2022).


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