I just read a couple of articles this morning in The Nation discussing the transitions from Eastern Europe in the wake of perestroika and the breakup of the Soviet Union. It struck me that some of the difficulties described were extremely personal and involved shopping: the writer and some others were overwhelmed by "choices" and cried with frustration. I feel this frustration and urge to cry every time I go into a large store. Online shopping isn't the only solution because the overwhelming number of choices, especially if not organized easily, also invokes retreat.
Marketing is often designed to obscure differences among products. I know some of the sorting is created by the stores themselves, buyers and marketing staff and the priorities of the stores themselves. I don't want to choose between their priorities, and I have spent much time online looking for the ideal product: how close to local, fair labor, high quality (so it will last). I try to care for what I purchase so it lasts as long as possible, motivated by marketplace avoidance as much as thrift and environmental respect.
As a cultural worker, I appreciate the beauty of design and the craft of objects I use in daily life, even mass produced objects. As a critical thinker, I make the link between Roland Barthes' semiotic analysis of magazine advertising to the working class and the success of Martha Stewart. Meryl Streep's takedown in The Devil Wears Prada about the effects of the fashion industry on our choices is not lost on me. I like people who embellish themselves, but at the same time, I find comfort in the daily "uniform" I've selected of comfortable plant and animal hair fibers. I prefer visiting a department store, like the one I went to last night, when there are few customers, the new stock is in, not ready for clearance sales and the staff is plentiful and bored. I like the service of a knowledgeable sales person who wants both the sale and my satisfaction, who's made me comfortable enough that I don't retreat without buying what I came for.
My department store excursion was prefaced by the most desirable of commercial interactions: meeting [at last] the producer of excellent fall fruits, Stina Booth, whose orchard produces gorgeous pears and apples, all organically grown in Twisp, just on the east side of the North Cascades. We chatted about fruit varieties (I want quinces and apricots), growing strategies (my quince tree is loaded with blossoms but has little fruit), and evolution (Stina's reading about apple cultivars; apples and pears co-evolved in Central Asia with omnivorous and herbivorous mammals such as bears and elephants whose scat spreads the trees).
So I have a continuum of comfort starting at the neighborhood grocer, which thankfully sells organic produce and natural foods instead of fat, sweets and tobacco; through the farmer's market and my csa deliveries where I know and communicate with the source providers; to the weekly supermarket, generally Puget Consumer's Coop and occasionally the Ballard Market; to the occasional hardware, bookstore, art supply, clothing store or department store; and ultimately the rare visit to Costco or Home Depot.
I've learned to cope with agoraphobia, which isn't extreme, through cognitive behavioral strategies. I have called friends while I'm shopping, to help me over the confusion and think more calmly what I'm doing. It will never be easy, but it's better than it used to be when I avoided shopping altogether.