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The Joy of Shopping

Whether it's cruising for casual wear at the Gap or mining for garb in malls or designer shops, women are drawn to clothes. Some to a fault. And L.A.'s a mecca for them.


By definition, a great city offers superlative shopping. Welcome to Los Angeles, where fashionable stores are diverse and plentiful, and everything anyone needs can be had at the flash of a credit card.

The variety of stores in L.A. is the shopping equivalent of cross training. When sprawling department stores seem overwhelming, tiny boutiques beckon. When the financial muscles strained by those large and small retail shrines are exhausted, discount malls, resale and vintage stores can satisfy in a low-impact way.

To examine why and how many of us indulge in this shopper's paradise, it is essential to eliminate need as a motivator. A man who has gained 20 pounds since he bought a suit five years ago and must attend his mother's funeral really needs a new suit. But for most recreational shoppers, need is beside the point.

Michael Sharkey, who, as director of personal shopping for Barneys New York in Beverly Hills, shops with people for a living, said, "No one needs clothes. However, many people want clothes."

So if we don't need to shop, why do we do it? Because it's fun, it's legal, it isn't fattening and the mirrors in stores alter reality, making us look as tall and thin as borzois. New clothes are ripe with promise. You've never had a bad time in them, been stopped for speeding in them, had your picture taken wearing them only to discover that the woman in the snapshot looks frumpy in that dress.

Shopping is free, at least until the bills come. Sometimes they never do materialize, at least when a bright, shiny store, staffed by unctuous salespeople who have been schooled in the art of equal opportunity flattery is visited like a museum by a shopper more intent on educating her eye than depleting her wallet. Browsing in such aesthetically pleasing places is like smoking controlled substances without inhaling. It delivers some of the excitement and few of the consequences.

Shopping has never been easier, or less revered. Societal shifts have conspired to cast a politically correct pall over conspicuous consuming. Before the numbers of women joining the work force swelled, Mom was the chief purchasing agent for her family, and shopping was something women were supposed to be good at. Then feminism spoiled the sport. A woman who loved to shop acquired all the social cache of a Hanson fan who indulges a taste for chicken fried steak when no one is looking.

The anti-shopping stance reeks of hypocrisy. Americans are incessantly subjected to marketing designed to entice them to shop and buy. Then those who do are ridiculed. (Imelda Marcos could have been pilloried for sins far more venal than an itch for shoes.) Dr. Donald Black, professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa College of Medicine and a specialist in treating shopaholics, said, "The purpose of advertising, which is mostly geared toward women, is to get them to buy things that they don't need, and to convince them that they need them. There are constant stimuli urging people to shop. I work with people who can't control their responses to those stimuli, and I don't see any advertising agencies lining up to give me research grants."

Catalogs, the Internet and cable shopping channels were supposed to replace driving to the mall, hunting for a parking space and the other annoyances and indignities of three-dimensional shopping. But the dirty little secret of the home shopping channels is that most of the clothes they hawk are awful, homely little wallflowers you wouldn't dance into a dressing room if you encountered them in a store. If catalogs are so great, why are J. Crew and J. Peterman opening more and more stores? The Internet is lonely and sterile, the opposite of the sensual, communal experience shopping has been since big-city department stores became destinations for people bent on seeing and being seen.

Stores are still the best places for hunters and gatherers to do what they do in distinctive ways. Experienced salespeople can size up a shopper in seconds, deciding which of the following types she is:

* The Blitzkrieg Shopper. Not an impulsive spree killer, the blitzkrieg shopper is an organized person who plans her attack. She doesn't like shopping much, but she likes less being without what she needs or what's current. So a few times a year, she surveys the stores and stocks up, on work clothes, play clothes, special occasion gowns, even underwear and socks. In between her big buying trips, she only needs to fill in with basics like turtlenecks if the temperature drops.

"That kind of shopper almost wants to get it over with," said Roberta Ross, manager of the Shauna Stein boutique in the Beverly Center. Men, if they shop at all, tend to fall into this category.

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