I wrote this piece as an exercise in writing in the second person. I had to think for a while about a subject. Something that I knew so well that I could walk you through it and point out details that bring out the point I wanted to make about consumerism in America. I have a bit of experience in retail so that did it for me. I hope this does it for you. If it does please let me know.
In the middle of Main Street stands City Center Mall. It’s a relatively new mall, only having been around for a year, but business is constant, and its stores are always filled with shoppers. You walk pass the mall’s entrance and notice the huge banners hung on the front of the box shaped building. Words written in steel blue ask you to “Find What Defines You.” Along with the inviting words are images of happy and pretty people holding cheap and pretty solutions to their life’s problems. You take the invitation and walk in.
By far the mall’s most popular store is Widgets, an electronics franchise that prides itself on being the place where “shopping is fun again.” Entering the mall you head for Widgets by way of elevator. The first thing to catch your eye once you’ve reached the top floor is a huge display of the company’s logo. Positioned above the entrance the sign violently grabs your attention, and for a few seconds your stare is fixed.
The Widgets logo is a yellow star burst set against a navy blue background and containing bold black letters that spell out “WIDGETS.” According to consumer psychologists three is the optimal number of elements for a memorable logo – in this case a star burst, black letters and a blue background. It’s a conscious attempt by Widgets to invade your unconscious and stamp themselves into the consumer’s brain. After being stamped you snap out of the gaze and continue walking towards the automatically opening doors.
Once you step inside your senses are immediately attacked. What you first notice is the blaring music. These are mediocre songs that have become great through repetition. You recognize most from the radio, and hum along with some of the more familiar tunes.
The music is played at its loudest in the media section. This section consists of a few dozen, very long, very narrow rows of music CDs, movie DVDs, and video games. All are organized by category and name. “Manufacturing Consent” is in Drama, and any musical artists not born in the United States is in a small section titled “World Music.”
This department is by far the most popular in the store. Customers get the newest music releases, or pick up a copy of the “special edition director’s cut” of last year’s Hollywood blockbuster. The choices appear to be almost limitless – and indeed you see people traveling between the rows with baskets full of product… The items themselves, however, are almost inconsequential; the act of having something is what consumers seek. In reality, Widgets doesn’t sell widgets, they sell a feeling of ownership.
As you walk deeper into the store the sound of the music lessens and you enter the home theater department near the back. This is where the wall of televisions shine their light in flashes of bright red, green and blues. The whirlwind of colors reminds you of a disco ball, or when you were a child and you held your breath for too long underwater; the tint of your skin changes in reaction to the lights shooting from the displays and reflecting off your face. More than just a wall, the home theater section is a whole world of televisions big and small, and everything in between.
The ceiling in this area is arched, with one end reaching the back, against the wall, and the other beginning at the front of the section. This overhang roof near the entrance of the section blocks the roof windows. This is so the light of the Sun won’t diminish the brightness of the many displays.
It’s here’s where you learn phrases like, “Plasma screen,” and “LCD technology.” A looped video playing simultaneously on every screen tells you the difference between the two, and explains why you must buy one or the other. The recording is also filled with TV show promos and “helpful tips” on what items you need. The plasma screens are by far the biggest and most expensive things there, but as you look at one and compare its image quality with the neighboring, cheaper, TV, you don’t see much of a difference.
The media section from earlier, sits in the middle of the store on a gray shag carpet. This carpet is cut off from the store’s other sections by black and white tiles that encircle the media department, turning it into an island. The tiles have a yellow racing stripe that runs across the middle of them. This racetrack, when followed, takes you through the entire store and back to the cashier. After leaving the home theater department you get on the track and browse through Widgets’ other departments.
You pass the appliance section and notice a change in the air. The smell is a little different. You sniff a little more and notice the odd combination of staleness and sterility. What you don’t know is that the smell is a combination of ozone gases and chlorofluorocarbons being released by the air conditioners, purifiers and other domestic devices. It’s hard to resist sniffing the queer-smelling, artificial air, but once the smell travels to your tongue you move on to the computer section.
The computer section isn’t as busy as the media area but it’s also filled with customers, all grabbing for the attention of the three available salesmen. They scramble around in their khaki pants and blue Widgets uniform shirts to answer complicated electronics questions, and at the same time try to push even more complicated accessories on ignorant customers. You unintentionally hear two conversations. One is between the sales manager and his employee:
“Bryan, our accessory sales are lower than dirt right now. You need to push more ink cartridges. Those things are marked up so damn high that if you sell just a couple our numbers’ get a nice boost.”
The employee nods attentively while being briefed on the sales of the day. The other conversation is between a salesmen and a customer.
“I can tell you from experience that things happen to computers. Hey, technology is a funny thing. One day you’re surfing the net, checking e-mail and cyber dating. The next ‘error’ is flashing across your expensive-flat-screen-monitor in red letters.”
The customers chuckles.
“That’s why I always recommend the Widgets Product Service Program to customers who buy heavy-duty electronics. If it breaks, we’ll fix it. It’s that simple.”
“Will it cover a computer virus?” The customer asks.
“Well no, but…”
You continue to walk down the racing stripe past the flashing digital cameras and cellular phones – pressing a few buttons on the fancier gadgets that an employee tells you to test out; you walk past a video game demo that begs you to take a try – and you do; you walk past the brightly colored displays that seems to jump up for your attention.
Finally, as you get near the door, you notice a CD. It has a special “buy two for $10.00” tag on it. If you find another CD with that tag you can buy both for only $10.00. You search around for another one and you seize it with enthusiasm. You don’t like the artist of either CD that much, but it certainly is a great deal. You take both titles up to the cashier. Once you’ve paid the total price of $14.45, after taxes, you walk towards the exit.
The employees don’t look as friendly as they once did, and you find yourself being eyed suspiciously as they ask to see your receipt. After matching the items listed on the receipt with the items in your bag, they point towards the door and you leave through another set of automatic sliding doors.
The exit stands only a few feet away from the entrance, which continues to let in eager consumers.
Once outside, you stare at the widgets logo on your bag. Wrenching your eyes from the image you walk towards the elevator – a box within the bigger box. You realize that though you caught a great deal on some worthless CDs you’re no more closer to lasting happiness than you were when you came in.