Shop until you drop.

Malls across the country look and feel the same, enticing consumers to buy and buy. Sociologist George Ritzer says shopping has become McDonaldized,turning our year-end spending into a scripted experience.

November 27, 2005|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN REPORTER

For the tens of thousands of years of human habitation of the Northern Hemisphere, there is archaeological evidence that the winter solstice was marked as perhaps the most important day of the year.

But only for the past few decades has the season of the solstice - the day the sun stops disappearing and begins returning - been accompanied by an orgy of consumption.

There is really no other way to describe the way the United States chooses to celebrate this time of the year, one that has an importance in most major Northern Hemisphere religions.

By the time you read this, the economic soothsayers will have pored over the figures from the day-after- Thanksgiving sales and begun prognosticating the amount that will be spent in the next few weeks.

Stocks will rise or fall on those findings. For good reason. The economy of the country depends upon this season of consumption. Unless we buy,buy,buy during these weeks at the end of year, the engine that drives the U.S. economy, although perhaps not grinding to a halt, would certainly slow down considerably.

You could even make the argument to your boss that you can do more for the economy that supports his business by using work time to shop instead of staying on the job.

"We were once the world leader in production,but we have lost that role," says University of Maryland sociologist George Ritzer. "What we have become instead is the world leader in consumption.

"The best example of that is that when I was a kid, General Motors was the largest company in the world. Now there is talk of it going bankrupt," he says. "And now, of course, the largest corporation in the world in Wal-Mart. What could better demonstrate this shift?"

The shift has been accompanied by the application in the retail world of the production-line principles used in manufacturing.

The title of Ritzer's ground-breaking 1994 book sums up what he calls it: The McDonaldization of Society.

Some will avoid these McDonaldized settings,finding small, local shops and artisans to buy presents for their loved ones. But for most, holiday shopping will take place in what sociologists call "cathedrals of consumption," huge malls that once might have had some local variations but that increasingly,coastto- coast, feature an identical lineup of stores.

Each of these outlets is run in the way Ray Kroc devised for McDonald's - the same store layout, the same selection of merchandise,the same uniformed salespeople saying the same thing, that store's variation of: "You want fries with that?"

All are designed to accomplish one task: to get you to spend money in a manner that maximizes efficiency. This is true whether you are in a warehouse setting where the bare-bones layout helps to imprint the perception of low prices, or a lavish boutique where the luxurious surroundings support the need for high prices.

What was once a human exchange between a customer and a business owner or an artisan is now a scripted exchange designed to enhance a certain experience and move merchandise.

"I once wrote an article called "Islands of the Living Dead" to describe a McDonaldized world," Ritzer says."There are these pockets of McDonaldization - shopping malls,strips of fast food franchises and the like - that are rigidly controlled in the way that they are structured, their surveillance, things like that. This turns them into dead sort of settings.

"But they are living in that people are obviously very excited to be there."

And never are they more excited than this time of the year.

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