What happens when shopping’s sense of plenty turns out to be fake?

Lessons from Bed, Bath & Beyond’s ‘towel-gate’

Photo illustration by Taylor Shute

Recently, Neatorama, a popular blog, caused a big stir when it published a photograph taken at housewares emporium Bed Bath & Beyond. The snapshot was hardly scandalous: it revealed that the rows and rows of colourful towels stacked to the ceiling that greet shoppers in the chain’s stores are in fact a mirage—they’re actually a handful of towels draped over undulating foam-rubber backing to appear like stacks of towels.

Yet the terry-cloth chimera clearly struck a nerve. “Bed Bath & Beyond has been lying to you,” Jezebel pronounced. Buzzfeed was more caustic: “Bed Bath & Beyond is a palace of LIES!”

On one level, it was all a big joke—“Towel-gate,” as Daily Beast dubbed it. Yet the faux outrage was clearly animated by something else—surprise, even betrayal. It was as if the picture offered evidence that maybe the retail abundance North American consumers take as a birthright—overwhelming displays and continually replenished inventories—may itself be backed with foam.

The consumer of the early 21st century can be forgiven for believing that retail resources are infinite. Just look around: T-shirts piled high at Old Navy, walls of toothpaste at Shoppers Drug Mart, ever-fresh shipments at H&M, tables laden with polyester tools of seduction at Victoria’s Secret. Shoppers expect plentiful, ever-changing display, says Joe Mimran, the founder and creative director of Canada’s top budget brand, Joe Fresh (and, before that, Club Monaco): “Basic Retail 101 is all about density,” he says. “Our visual team is constantly reworking the displays to showcase the new product that arrives each week.”

Retail anthropologist Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, is bemused by the reaction to Bed Bath & Beyond’s ability to make four towels look like 24. “Retailers have been doing this for years,” he says. “I think it is curious that the shopper hasn’t realized the degree to which it is all theatrical.”

A sense of plenty triggers optimism and positive emotion in shoppers, which makes them buy, says psychologist Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College. The perception of scarcity, on the other hand—stores where the shelves look as if they’ve been decimated by zombies—engenders a defensive, preservation mode that encourages hunkering down, not heading to Zara. “It feels better to go into a store that has 12 rows of Coke rather than one with four rows and eight empty rows on the shelf,” Schwartz says. But it’s not just the benefit of fullness versus emptiness; it’s many versus few: if you see 12 rows of Coke rather than a modest display of one row, you’re simply more likely to buy a Coke.

Plentiful display telegraphs tacit permission, says Steve Hall, a Dallas retail display consultant who started his career at Gap Inc. “When there’s a lot of something, it’s easier to take one,” he says. Underhill agrees: “It suggests you’re free to take as many as you want—or more than you need,” he says. It also benefits retailers who have less back-room storage space than they used to: “In a typical Sears Canada of 1960, maybe 30 per cent of space was storage; today it’s 10 per cent,” says Underhill.

Abundant merchandising is about selling the forest, not the tree: it’s not just the 50 turtlenecks, but a sweeping variety of colours that also distracts shoppers from the quality of one product. Colour and lighting are crucial, Mimran says: “We look for colours to pop in an impactful way.” There’s a reason the Bed Bath & Beyond model is the norm, Mimram points out: “You can take a very basic item and when you see it repeated through the kaleidoscope of colour, you get transfixed; it’s elevated.” Colour also prevents “repetition blindness,” says A.K. Pradeep, author of The Buying Brain: Secrets for Selling to the Subconscious Mind, to describe what happens to shoppers’ brains when they’re faced with too much of the same thing. “Too many of the same thing isn’t seen as abundance, it’s a Xerox,” Pradeep says. And that’s a turn-off for shoppers.

It’s no accident that the rise of department stores in the 19th century, which banished the shopkeeper as sentry for goods hidden behind the counter or in the back, came at a time when shortage and scarcity were threats to large portions of the population. France’s Le Bon Marché and America’s Macy’s transfixed shoppers with excessive displays intended to convey a sense of luxury. With seemingly endless supplies of goods, the first department stores served as cultural pacifiers, creating a symbolic meaning of surplus and comfort. Today mass chains, along with online shopping, provide the same effect. The true “palace of LIES!” sham isn’t that retail resources are more finite than they seem: it’s that consumer resources are, too—with the schism between rich and poor widening, and the “99 per cent” seeking relief at Costco. The result? Average consumer debt in Canada now stands at a record high of $27,485 (not including mortgage debt) per adult, according to credit-monitoring firm TransUnion.

As in the 19th century, goods displayed in volume encourage shoppers not only to spend more, but to want more, and they do so by creating imbalance, says Hall. “Nature abhors a vacuum, so the shopper becomes the vacuum. You almost feel obliged to take one.” Crowded floors trigger another reaction: the expectation of aggressive discounting—and getting a bargain, says Underhill. It’s a format that appeals particularly to women, he says, citing research that shows women view shopping as “treasure hunting.” “When there are more things on the floor, there are more things to sort through.”

A perfect exemplar of abundance merchandising is retail’s current darling, Uniqlo, the $12-billion, Japan-based, 846-store chain named 2010 International Retailer of the Year by the U.S. National Retail Federation. Walking into their vast stores (which have yet to come to Canada, though rumours are flying) is like entering an ecosystem calculated to elicit consumer vertigo—and fuel the adrenalin of want: interiors are wallpapered with thousands of items stacked floor to ceiling and arranged in a stunning array of hues. (As at Bed Bath & Beyond, sleight of hand is involved: when Uniqlo managers noticed that the towers of jeans sagged at the top, cardboard-backed “dummy jeans” were inserted on the highest rows.) The vast range of colour masks the fact that the actual selection is limited: one polo shirt, for instance, comes in 80 colours.

Abundance shouldn’t be confused with actual choice, says Schwartz, whose 2005 book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, argues that the greater number of decisions foisted on consumers doesn’t mean more options and can even lead to unhappiness. “Abundance means you walk into a store and the shelves are piled high; they don’t have to be piled high with different things,” he says. Ultimately, most choices on the consumer level are trivial—picking mint versus cinnamon toothpaste. Yet the time spent deciding imbues them with import, he says: “What ought to be a five-second process becomes a five-minute process.”

The dynamic is intensified by the abundance-scarcity paradox most evident in “fast-fashion” chains, says Underhill: inventories are replenished once, sometimes twice a week. Consumers follow that lead: the average Zara customer, a survey found, doesn’t expect to wear what she buys more than about 10 times. And though stock may be plentiful, the quick inventory turnover can prompt an “if I don’t buy it now, it will be gone” anxiety, which propels purchasing.

Scarcity fear offers a perfect foil to the ethos of abundance, which is why retailers stoke it with flash sales, pop-up stores and limited-edition designer collections, such as Crate & Barrel’s recent designer teapot promotion or H&M partnering with the high-end Italian brand Marni. It’s the ideal marriage of the abundance of mass retail with the ethos cultivated by Hermès and other high-end shrines, which showcase select products with museum-like reverence in a setting designed to draw attention to craftsmanship, status and exclusivity.

Online shopping extends the abundance-scarcity paradox ad infinitum with sites such as the OutNet and One Kings Lane, filled with high-end goods selling at deep discount (think Winners on the Internet). Yet consumers are oblivious to many of these manipulations, says Underhill, as reflected in the flap over simulated towel displays: “I think, if there’s one thing that characterizes 21st-century shoppers, it’s how naive they really are.”

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