Home Shopping Has To Beat The Siren Song Of The Store

When the going gets tough, runs the wry motto, the tough go shopping. It's a concise way of saying that for Americans, amassing goods is a psychic activity--an outlet for exuberance or misery not unlike having a Friday-night martini. In fact, the urge to shop is a neurological response: Doctors consider it a key symptom of manic illness. Dear to the capitalist soul, shopping encompasses far more than the recurrent need to stock up on socks.

So when retailers bet on television as the pot of gold at the end of their economic rainbow, they're gambling that shopping in your living room will deliver the same emotional bang for your buck as shopping in a store. To succeed, they will have to replicate through television a subtle combination of entertainment, ego gratification, and pragmatic benefits. That's a lot to ask from the medium that created couch potatoes. "So far, home shopping has been a cultural joke," sniffs Judith Langer, president of market-research firm Langer Associates.

HIDDEN MOTIVES. Sociologists can identify a long list of hidden dimensions involved in the store-shopping experience that solitary button-pushing cannot satisfy. The companionship of a mother and daughter who sally forth to pick out a new dress, or the bonding rituals of teenagers who meet at the record store every Saturday, can turn shopping into an important social event.

Even the more private aspects of shopping--taking an hour off from work to buy yourself a treat, or enjoying the attentions of an obsequious salesperson--require for their pleasure that you leave your ordinary environment to do something special. Indeed, William Wilkie, marketing professor at the University of Notre Dame and author of the textbook Consumer Behavior, believes the desire for sensory stimulus--light, color, movement, scent, and sound--is a major motive when people go shopping.

Americans also use shopping for exercise: Mall-walking has become a popular suburban workout. And for a family pinching pennies, an evening in the mall's food court can provide an inexpensive entertainment option--having a bite and watching the world go by. "The mall is the village green of our era," says Langer.

To be sure, lots of people hate the experience. Barbara Caplan, a director at Yankelovich Partners in Westport, Conn., says her firm's data show consumers are increasingly dissatisfied with traditional retail outlets. "There are things retailers won't want to replicate [on television]: hassle, frustration, angst, and exhaustion," she says. With convenience and efficiency more desirable than ever, TV retailers hope to win over busy professionals who would rather sleep than go searching for a new winter coat.

MATTER OF FAITH. But to do that, merchants must work around a fundamental drawback of TV as a sales medium: no reality. If customers can't kick the tires, feel the fabric, or try on the shoes, their trust in the seller must be that much greater, especially for big-ticket purchases. Retailers will have to build on their reputations, offer lots of choices, and make returns easy.

The seductive hard sell of today's late-night home-shopping shows ("Only five left! And they're the only ones of their kind!") has to evolve into informative pitches that allow consumers to make unhurried decisions that they won't regret the next day.

So far, home shoppers remain a blip on the retail sales screen, accounting for just 1% to 2% of the shopping population. Even if this number grows exponentially, it's unlikely that store shopping will go the way of the hula hoop. For retailers, that could mean a win-win situation: When the going gets tough, some people will hit the stores, and others will drown their sorrows in electronic acquisition.

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