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Shop ’til we drop?

It’s Black Friday in the US and elsewhere (although not France this year), a made-up holiday typically marked by unabashed consumerism and an unending barrage of corporate missives encouraging you to “buy now!” The 2020 version has the potential to be both better and worse. The Covid-19 pandemic could mean fewer fistfights over the last Playstation 5 as shoppers stay home—and more mindful purchases overall as they reassess what they actually need—but pent-up demand and retailers desperate for business could also see an already-stretched home delivery ecosystem shift into overdrive.

At Quartz, we believe shopping isn’t just about acquiring the necessities. It’s a statement by consumers about their preferences, priorities, and increasingly, their politics. Consumers power the global economy, and the choices buyers make can shape industries, build fortunes, and slow climate change.

Here are a few carefully curated selections.


A different mood on Black Friday

  • On one hand, a survey of more than 1,000 shoppers by PwC found 36% of those planning to shop during Black Friday week still expected to do most of their shopping on the Friday itself, a year-over-year decline of 4%.
  • On the other, a survey of more than 13,000 American adults by market intelligence firm CivicScience found only 15% said they were likely to shop on Black Friday this year, down from 21% last year.

Fun fact!

Sears 1970s advertisement
Image copyright: Sears
In the 1970s, Sears catalogs had a higher proportion of gender-neutral advertisements.

Sociologist Elizabeth Sweet used decades’ worth of Sears catalogs to demonstrate how gendered children’s toys have become. In the 1970s, about 70 percent “showed no markings of gender whatsoever.”

Learn more by flipping through the pages of the Quartz Weekly Obsession on the Sears catalog from the archive.


Shopping basket shuffle

For many Americans, grocery shopping has long been a form of entertainment. But during the pandemic, stocking up has become a matter of necessity rather than luxury.

At the beginning of the pandemic, a full 93% of poll respondents said they were preemptively stocking up on food and drink. Americans were buying so much, so differently, that it actually threw off inflation numbers, which are based on a typical “basket” of goods. It wasn’t a shortage, per se: According to the US Food and Drug Administration, it was more of a result of stockpiling.

The changes to the food system brought on by Covid-19 have been disruptive, disorienting—and, very occasionally, delightful. Read more about the impact on grocery shopping and online delivery in our guide to how we eat now.

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🛒 The 2020 shopping cart

In many cases, the pandemic has caused consumers to dramatically shift their shopping priorities.

What we’re buying: 
🛶 Outdoor sports equipment
🧤 Rubber gloves
🦴 Pet food
🚙 Used cars

What we’re not buying:
🥋 Belts
👖 Jeans
👠 High heels


🔮 Cannot predict now

The last two months of the year are always critical for US retailers. Because of Covid-19, however, it’s shaping up to be a holiday season like no other, and nobody knows exactly what to expect.

For retailers, that’s a challenge. They need to plan ahead so they have the right products in stock and can serve customers efficiently. But holiday forecasts from different research firms and consultancies show a variety of predictions about how holiday spending will compare with previous years

Nate Shenck, head of retail at Boston Consulting Group, says retailers will need to use data to know where to staff workers, what stock to carry, and where to stock it. There’s more uncertainty than ever, and they need to work smarter to be successful.


Dept. of jargon

A customer holds toilet paper at a market, following the outbreak of a new coronavirus, in Hong Kong, China February 8, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu - RC27WE9PFGOV
Image copyright: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
Hoarding, stockpiling, or panic buying?

Stockpiling: a normal behavior that many people practice in preparation for a known or anticipated shortage

Panic buying: an impulsive and temporary reaction to anxiety caused by an impending crisis

Hoarding: difficulty in discarding items that are no longer needed

While these terms are often used interchangeably, only the latter is associated with a serious psychiatric illness. As Carol Mathews, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida, explains, hoarding disorder goes beyond stockpiling in an emergency to impact a sufferer’s physical and mental wellbeing. Read more on this illness and how to know if you or a loved one may be showing signs of hoarding disorder.


And if you’re looking for books…

… it’s ok to judge them by their covers. Voracious readers often roll their eyes at the sight of millennial-cool, color-coded bookshelves à la The Wing, not to mention the GOOP-endorsed philosophy that it is totally fine to keep books in your bookshelf that you have not and likely will not read, based on what they look like, and the pleasure they give you as objects.

But if words and images within the pages give books their value, covers transform them into something more. That something is the reason we like to display books in our homes, why furniture stores make sure their shelves have books (or bookalikes), or why selling books by the foot is a sustainable—in fact, lucrative—proposition.

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Still contemplating your shopping choices? Head over to the Quartz Obsession on how we spend.

An animated gif of Issa Rae standing in line at the grocery store from the HBO show Insecure.
Image copyright: Giphy