Essay 2

Shopping Ethnography

In this essay you will be studying and reporting on the behavior of shoppers in a particular retail establishment (that is, some place that sells some sort of product). This is an observation-based assignment: you will be collecting a variety of details including a physical description of the store and its atmosphere, who its customers are and how they behave, and how the customers and sales staff interact.  As a framework for your observations and report, we will read an article by Malcolm Gladwell titled “The Science of Shopping.” You will be an anthropologist for this assignment, going out into the world to observe your chosen fieldsite, writing down your observations, trying to see patterns in the details and then connect them to Gladwell’s essay, and then writing up your study.

Read “The Science of Shopping”

As you read, note  the different aspects of “shopping-science” that Gladwell explores. Post these notes on your blog.

Student samples:

Decide on a subject.

Spend some time brainstorming a list of stores that might be possibilities. Include not just stores you’re familiar with but also stores you may be curious about and especially stores that have a well-defined customer base (Hot Topic is the store that always seems to come to mind). Consider specialty stores like ski shoppes and videogame stores, exclusive boutiques and antique stores, florists and fishmarkets, cosmetics stores and toy shops, independent booksellers and …whatever else you can think of. Think about the practical aspect of whether you’ll be able to ”hang around” for a while without drawing too much attention to yourself; another option might be to pick a store that’s close by so you can drop in several times for short observation sessions (it’s probably a good idea in any case to visit the place more than once.) I think that the assignment will be more interesting and enjoyable if you pick a store (or customers) that seem(s) “colorful” in some way, full of lively details. Remember, though, that it’s the writer’s interest that makes subjects interesting to others. (In other words, it’s possible to write a great essay about Stop & Shop, but a crunchy-granola natural foods store seems at first glance to offer richer possibilities.)

Your main research question:

How well do the theories and observations of Paco Underhill (as reported by Gladwell) match what you observe in your own retail fieldsite?

Observe and take field notes.

Visit your retail location with notebook in hand (and maybe a camera, if it seems OK to use one there). Consider the store’s location and its exterior, and then the space itself. Map out the space. How does traffic flow? What’s the general atmosphere? What details create that atmosphere? What’s the lighting like? The floor? The furniture? Pictures on the wall? Of what? Remember that you have five senses. What do you smell, hear, taste, touch?

Then look at whatever is being sold and observe how it’s displayed and how it’s arranged. Can you connect any of this to what you read in Gladwell’s essay? How?

Now pay attention to the customers. What are their ages, genders, clothing? Follow a few of them around discretely, or observe from a not-too-far-away distance. How do they interact? Record specific bits of conversation. Are they using any insider language, any unfamiliar words? Make sure to record objective, concrete details. Look for patterns. Ask questions, if you’re comfortable doing so. Watch the sale staff as well and how they interact with customers. Record specific interactions, with dialogue if possible.

The target length of your essay is 3 or 4 pages. Remember that the best writing is done from a sense of abundance, a big messy heaping pile of details. If you think your pile is not deep or rich enough, go back to your fieldsite to collect some more data. Even if you are comfortable with the amount of information you have collected, it is often helpful to visit the site more than once.

Try to pull everything together.

In your draft, try to organize details into paragraph chunks. Use the list of main topics from Gladwell’s essay to help with this.  Or you may wish to organize by subtopics or some other logical division. If you have a great deal of information to get down on paper, just try in the first draft to get it down on the page. The bulk of the content of your writing for this essay should be observed details. However, you must also connect those observations to Gladwell’s essay, using at least three quotes or paraphrases from the article in your own essay. The essay, therefore, will require a Works cited page and in-text citation, which we will talk about in class.


In revision, work at sharpening both your specific details and your focus. You do not need to match everything in Gladwell’s essay with the observations you’ve made of your particular store. You may choose, for example, to focus on a more limited consideration, such as the different ways that men and women behave in this store. Frame your research question as specifically as possible, and try to articulate the answer you’ve arrived at in a clear sentence or two.

 Criteria for grading.

  • How well you establish the focus on connecting your observations to the Gladwell article
  • The specificity of the details you collect.
  • Your success in ordering those details into focused paragraphs controlled by topic sentences
  • Your effective integration of material from Gladwell’s essay



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