Shopportunity!, Kate Newlin

Collins, 2006, 240 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-088840-4

There are many ways in which a given book can fail to achieve its potential, but Kate Newlin’s Shopportunity! is one of the rarest blend of misguided intentions, flagrant elitism and inane chatter.  It’s easy to read, written by a smart person, filled with interesting factoids and yet fails to cohere in a fascinating fashion.  It frustrated me in ways that simply-bad or dull books simply can’t even dream of.

Its biggest problem is that it simply doesn’t know what it’s about.  From the cover blurbage, we get the impression that this will be, in the footsteps of Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy and Call of the Mall, an exposé of the contemporary American shopping experience and how it fools the average shopper into making suboptimal choices.  But then again, it may be an instruction manual for shop owners: Newlin, after all, works for a consulting firm that specializes in retail business advice.  A quick look at the first paragraph tells us that the contemporary shopping experience has become soulless and mechanized: Is Shopportunity! an ironic title meant to propel an acid critique of today’s big box stores and their devastating impact on the nature of consumer choice?

This confused, perhaps even schizophrenic impression grows stronger as the book advances.  Because it’s possible to find all three messages in Shopportunity!, along with brain-damaged passages in which Newlin summarizes her main arguments in bullet-points meant to enhance our shopping experience.  (“Rule #17: Break Out of the Big Box” [P.165])  As if what we really needed was a retail consultant telling us how to become a better, more satisfied shopper…

Oh yes; in between the looks at the psychology of the modern shopper, savage anti-Wal-Mart diatribes, explanations on how bad stores drive away customers and a lament on the terrible cost of “cheap”, Newlin actually aims part of her book to people who love shopping and want to make it even more fun.

It’s not necessarily a contradiction in term, although my own prejudices are having trouble coping with that concept.  I’m not, after all, a happy shopper.  Like many men, I see retail stores as places for hunting, not gathering: I know my prey, I’m a busy guy, and my ideal store minimizes the nonsense between me and what I want.  So when Newlin flies in a rage against Costo/Price Club, I take it personally: I love Costo in ways that airy discussions about the chain’s efficiency, logistics and force concentration can’t fully convey.  (But I don’t always shop there.)

On the other hand, I do boycott Wal-Mart and love my upscale(ish) neighbourhood grocery store.  Yet when Newlin blasts a suburban (read; poor and lower-class) IGA while praising Whole Food, I can’t help but twitch an eyebrow.  That reflex is confirmed pages later when Newlin talks about a simply wonderful, dahrling shopping afternoon in trendy upscale Manhattan boutiques.  It then becomes reasonable to suppose that Newlin has lived the Manhattanite life for too long to be able to relate to most of her shopping readership: much of the (short) book isn’t about shopping as it seems to be about pure class exhibitionism, and the demonstration that Newlin’s tastes are unarguably better than those poor schlubs trucking it to their local IGA.  There’s a difference between having the means to consume better products and rubbing one’s self-designated superiority in everyone else’s faces, and Shopportunity! comes revoltingly close to the second.  As a result, I found myself disliking the book long after Newlin moved on to other topics.  In fact, I found myself disliking the author (who, I’m sure, is a perfectly nice person when she’s not writing books), and there’s little coming back from that point.  I hope it burns her to learn that I got the book at a remainders table.

But even ignoring the class issues, Shopportunity! is just a mess, destined at about four different and incompatible audiences.  Those looking at business advice will resent being treated to incoherent “Shopping Tips” like brain-damaged Valley Girls (“Rule #3: Let Brands Transform You” [P.40]), while socially-conscious shoppers will be put off by Newlin’s effortless arrogance.  While there is substantial insight buried in-between the dumbed-downed bullet points and the shoppier-than-thou arrogance, Shopportunity! never gels, and comes across as an unsatisfactory mixture of material found elsewhere in purer, more coherent fashion.  There are so many fundamental social problems in the way retail outlets are set up nowadays that building about around how it’s “not fun to shop anymore” is the dumbest possible way to approach the issue.  Shopping technicians are better off reading Paco Underhill’s books; shopping activists are better off with Naomi Klein or Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap and shopping fans are better off at the mall.

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