Window Shopping for the soul

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A necessity in some cases, a therapy in some others and still a compulsion for another universe of people, the shopping experience is a very universal ‘response’ to being human. Of course we need to go shopping, physically or otherwise, because we need to be buying ourselves our needs of life, basic and staples, not so basics and luxury, and just about everything and anything. Then there also is the ‘want’ to go shopping, in person, loitering around malls and shops and stuff, because of the certain social vibe it allows us to partake in, a certain buzz characterising this exercise of interest, particularly on days when we are a bit too vulnerable to the awareness of the futility that life is, but also even otherwise, like at times when we just feel the need to be out there and go shopping, irrespective of the fact whether we end up actually buying something or not. To that extent, shopping is like a mild kind of therapy, offsetting worries and lifting up moods even when there might not be anything particularly distressing about the day. In more greater extents though, shopping indeed is as recognised a means of effective therapy as what counsellors and psychologists take occasional resorts to. Sometimes psychosocial, but also harbouring the scope to elevate into something quite addictive, which is when it begins to be termed with names like compulsive shopping disorder, referring to the uncontrollable urge to splurge on things, often expensive and usually not serving any purpose other than the instant gratification of it, shopping indeed can take any range of identities for something that therefore reveals itself differently to different people.

But there exists also a world of shopping, somewhat separate from the experiences already described, that holds also a charm as unique to its own. This isn’t even a real manifestation of the shopping experience but nevertheless one that is as integral and as intricate an aspect of this human want and need to procure material things. We call it window shopping and is an experience rooted in the shopping scheme of things and isn’t anything trendsetting or epochal or particularly modern a phenomenon that has caught the world by storm. Like the very act of shopping, this associated facet of can also be as therapeutic an exercise in pursuit, since it also is a popular mode of recreation, though perhaps not widely indulged in in that capacity, very often at least and consciously at that, but that which still is an’ act’ without which no shopping process can see fulfilment.

Window shopping is exactly what it sounds like- shopping through the windows, not though as some sort of an over-the-counter procurement of goods but rather a ‘peering’ through the windows of some store or shop or mall, ‘checking out’ goodies on display, much like what the memorable opening scene of the iconic 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s saw Audrey Hepburn doing at an equally iconic Tiffany & Co. store, even when it has been a movie rendered more popular by the again iconic emergence of the little black dress sported by Hepburn in this very scene. Fashion considerations apart however (not really though), such ‘shopping’ from the external limits of a store might not always be done with the intent of making some actual purchase but might be something stemming from the capturing of the fancies by something put up for sale because it just so happened to appeal to you. While in that effect, window shopping cannot be exactly rendered essential to a ‘yielding’ shopping spree because you were not exactly scrounging for that particular item but the potential it holds of turning your everyday passing by the stores as part of your everyday commute into an impromptu shopping experience is indeed quite real. More loosely, and more integral as part of getting some real, intentional shopping done, window shopping can also be the act of going into stores and malls and choosing out particular products and stuff to decide on the one ideally suited to the requirements.

breakfast at tiffanys
Source: Clio Awards

But for something so natural a part of shopping, window shopping while have been around for quite some time, precisely for more than a couple of centuries now, started emerging as a ‘thing’ only sometime in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe. Dawning upon the elite masses initially as some form of entertainment, being quite effective a pastime in whiling away minutes and moments, the emergence of the phenomenon was also facilitated by a change in the physical structure of shops and stores. Usually not spacious enough to allow customers the luxury of roaming about the store examining each and every thing on display, the stores of times prior to the relatively newer years restricted also the settling of eyes and the setting of heart upon in- store merchandise from outside their also dark precincts as they sported just a front door with two wider openings on either side, each covered with shutters, that when opened formed a canopy on the upper part and a shop board down the lower. It was only with the introduction of glazed windows into the picture that started changing the scene for prospective buyers as well as the actual ones sometime from the eighteenth century since stores now began allowing a sneak peak into the world of irresistible urges they hold, tapping into the psychology of humans to not just seek out what they desire but also desire what they start seeking out.

With shop owners now starting to feature windows that spanned the full lengths of their shops for the display of merchandise in order to draw in customers, what they ushered in was a new era of not just shopping but also enjoyment, typically for the women folk. As the later part of the seventeenth century entertained the notion of solo women roaming around streets as socially inappropriate, window shopping emerged to be in fact quite the therapy for common women, who found in shopping a pretext to explore freedom on the streets of the city, even when not all who went (window) shopping actually harboured the intention of a purchase. Continuing well into the more modern times of the present, the insecurities faced by men of women intruding into the spaces of urban life might not be present, but this rather pleasing feeling of going about the whole window shopping tradition still exists, not just in physicality anymore but even within the expanse of the world of online shopping. In fact, going window shopping on e- commerce sites is even more convenient, since it does not take you out on the streets and allows you to explore the world right from where you happen to be at the moment. While equally relaxing and indulgent as a past time activity, online window shopping of course does not make allowance for the increased social presence that was what cultivated this culture in the first place. It only is natural though since e- shopping being a breakout phenomenon of the modern world it does not have to take into consideration aspects of social scrutiny and stuff, like what the female folk of times preceding ours had come to experience. But in persisting still as a practice still indulged in and enjoyed as much by people all over the world, the charms of window shopping indeed are undeniable.

Window shopping was also lent a dimension more dynamic and sophisticated when shops also started sporting arcades that offered the respectable European middle class ladies the opportunity to seek out leisure along its promenades, while opting also to check out stuff on display. Emerging to become a prominent, almost certain feature of grand shopping stores by the 19th century, within which rested the lure of making occasional impulsive purchases, arcades and shopping displays came to be more elaborate with each passing day, with retailers resorting to means of window dressing to attractively show off their wares and thereby entice buyers into making an actual, tangible purchase.

Continuing well ahead into the coming centuries, window shopping has even expanded to span the realms of popular media, with songs and films often alluding to it in all its world of feel- good vibes. This very insignificantly significant component of shopping has thus persisted through the times in the pleasures of its appeal to the sight, and can be indeed as enriching as retail therapy, offering the comforts of shopping even when it might not yield tangible goodies, in fact even better still since it offsets the costs of compulsive buying, while still ‘honouring’ the desires of the mind. And while this experience of something that is standard yet unparalleled is a common encounter throughout the world, the underlying seductive power of window shopping has never been more aptly embodied than by the French term for it, ‘lèche-vitrines,’ which means, quite amusingly, to lick the windows!


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