Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Shelagh Dolan, a graduate writing student at Regis College in Weston, Mass.
Have you ever gone shopping with a friend and asked for an opinion on a piece you weren’t sure about purchasing? Most of us have. Now, consider whether you’ve ever gone shopping alone and sent a photo or a Snapchat to friends asking for that same opinion. Anyone with a smartphone can snap a photo and fire it off in a text in just seconds. This begs the question: Is technology changing how we shop? Are we, essentially, styling ourselves with selfies?
To get some answers, I spent a sunny spring afternoon trekking down Boston’s North End, through Chinatown to Back Bay, interviewing an assortment of shoppers and store employees at the city’s most popular retail centers: Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Downtown Crossing, the Prudential Center Mall.
The results of my pilgrimage weren’t quite what I was expecting, but one thing was undeniable: teenagers are constantly taking selfies.
Have we replaced store employees, who are supposed to help us pick the perfect size and style, with apps that connect us to our friends?
“Every single day,” said two employees at the Faneuil Hall Abercrombie & Fitch. That’s how often groups of teenage girls are taking photos of themselves. “Right in front of that mirror,” one of them says, gesturing to the floor-to-ceiling mirror in the store’s entrance.
It’s generational to some degree. A Banana Republic employee on Newbury Street told me that she could not recall a time in many months that she’d seen anyone taking a photo of themselves on the floor. A twenty-something shopper at lululemon in the Prudential Center Mall agreed, saying teens tend to be the most public and unapologetic about their selfie sticks.
But we all have the front-facing camera—teens aren’t the only ones taking selfies. Older millennials and Gen X-ers are selfie artists too—we’re just better at hiding it.
One employee at the Newbury Street Guess told me about half the customers come in requesting help and the other half turn to their phones instead. “I feel like when people are taking selfies, they just want to be left alone,” she said. She told me about a customer from the week before, with whom she assisted picking an outfit for a girls’ night. When the employee asked the woman if she needed any help in the dressing room, the woman responded that she was actually Snapchatting her friends at the moment but she’d let her know if she needed anything.
So, are we outsourcing opinions now? Have we replaced store employees, who are supposed to help us pick the perfect size and style, with apps that connect us to our friends?
When style goes social
In the Downtown Crossing H&M, I saw three college seniors, two men and a woman, frolicking through the aisles, holding up blouses to their chests and shaking their heads. I approached them and asked, “Do you ever take pictures of yourselves with clothes before you buy them?” They looked at each other and burst out laughing. “Like this?” one of the guys responded as he playfully posed in front of a rack of flannel shirts.
In addition to sending photos to friends, we’re also posting them for the world to see on social media, a tool that’s become an integral part of retail. Brands are streamlining their aesthetic in stores and online to form one unified identity customers can see and touch.
Boston-based freelance fashion photographer Lauren O’Neil told me, “[Social media] is a smart tactic for companies to really engage with customers. They can post images someone may have uploaded to Instagram and tagged them in and their followers can see a product existing in the hands of a real customer, not just in an advertisement setting.”
I first noticed the implementation of social media in American Apparel on Newbury. One employee told me the store created an official #aaselfie hashtag to promote real-time customer engagement. Using the hashtag, customers post photos of themselves wearing American Apparel merchandise, either in the dressing room or out on the street, and the brand will repost them for all of their followers to see.
Once the employees told me about this, I began to pick up on other official hashtags plastered on the glass windows of other stores I passed. #perfectpair at Aldo, #anthroearthday at Anthropologie, #F21Finds at Forever 21. I scanned my phone, and every store I’d gone to had an official Instagram account.
Instagram isn’t the only popular social media platform for fashion, however. I met an avid Pinterest user in the Faneuil Hall Urban Outfitters who takes photos for different reasons. “I take pictures [in stores] all the time,” she says. “If I see something I like but I’m not getting paid for a few days, I’ll take a picture, pin it to my style board, and come back for it later.” The woman, in her mid-thirties, doesn’t take pictures of herself for advice, however. She likes to look different from her friends.
The last stop on my journey was Forever 21 — the end of the line on Newbury Street. I was ready to finish my pilgrimage and enter the Mecca of shopping selfies. But when I walked up and down the four floors of the store, there wasn’t a selfie-taker in sight. Forever 21 did have the most smartphone usage I’d seen that day, however. At least half of the customers perused the aisles with phone in hand, many were listening to music with headphones, three people were sitting down playing with their phones and at least five people were texting during escalator rides (yes, I was one of them). The overall crowd was definitely younger than some of the other stores I visited, but it didn’t fit my preconceived stereotypes.
Everyone shopping in a store has a different story. I encountered a young woman despairing over “a bridesmaid heel that’s too tall” and a Converse shoe designer seeking “a really dope jacket.” Another woman was shopping for her husband and sending him pictures to make sure he’d like what she bought so she could avoid making a return trip. People are in stores for different reasons and they’re using smartphone technology in different ways.
The Guess employees pointed out an opportunity for selfies I hadn’t previously considered—since Newbury Street is a tourist destination, many international customers will Skype or FaceTime their friends and family overseas while in the store. This made me reconsider what I thought was a superficial interaction as more of a deeply personal human connection. A selfie captures exactly where you are, what you look like and how you feel in a moment.
So, are shopping selfies unique? Not really. We have this powerful technology in our hands and we’re finding ways to incorporate it into everything we do, whether that’s shopping on Newbury, hiking a mountain or driving a car. Wherever we are, we’re capturing moments and sharing them.
Regardless of whether you love posting photos of yourself or you think selfie sticks will bring about the rapture, I think the clerk at Urban Outfitters in Faneuil Hall said it best. When I asked him if he had ever seen anyone take a ridiculous selfie in the store, he paused and responded: “They’re just being human.”
Photo of shopper via Shutterstock.