Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
When I was growing up, my family revealed a shocking secret about my father: In his youth, he used to shop for presents on Christmas Eve. I absorbed the lesson that crowded stores are the domain of the young and reckless. These days, he claims that the last-minute shopping was due to procrastination, but for extremely social and competitive people like my dad, packed stores can be part of the holiday fun. A whole body of academic research is revealing that crowding in retail stores sometimes actually makes us enjoy shopping more.
Research on crowding began in the 1970s, when scholars such as Daniel Stokols argued that there’s a difference between density and crowding. While density is the objective tightness of a space due to the floorplan and number of people in it, crowding is the experience of not having as much space as you want. Crowding is subjective, and the feeling of crowding varies from person to person.
The feeling of crowding can even vary in the same person depending on the situation. Researchers tie vastly different reactions to crowd density to whether someone is shopping for utilitarian or hedonic reasons. An example of utilitarian holiday shopping would be grabbing sugar cookie ingredients at the supermarket on the way home from work. Hedonic shopping might be browsing newly launched luxury candles and beauty advent calendars at a department store. The same human crowding that could feel oppressive at the supermarket might feel festive and fun around the holiday beauty display.
Researchers Julie Baker and Kirk L. Wakefield break mall patrons into task shoppers and social shoppers. Task shoppers have “a higher need for control” and “tend to perceive density as crowding,” while social shoppers “tend to have a higher need for intimacy, perceive density positively, and feel excited.” Baker and Wakefield found that roughly one third of mall patrons are very social shoppers (30.3 percent), another third are very task-oriented shoppers (34.3 percent), and the remaining chunk are somewhere in between. Since “frequent mall shoppers tend to be socially oriented, while infrequent patrons are prone to be task oriented,” the findings suggest that the people who are in the mall this season want to be there and actually like the experience of holiday crowds on some level. This might be even more true now, since in the five years since the study was published, online shopping has only grown, which gives task-oriented shoppers a way to clear their list without leaving home.
Subsequent research showed that we don’t tend to like feeling crowded by tight store layouts, but we do like shopping with a crowd — just as long as there aren’t too many people. Researchers studying via surveys, in labs, and in stores have shown that there’s an inverted U-shaped response to crowding: too few people or too many and we don’t like it, but a bustling store seems to set our inner animal at ease. Our preference for crowding is explained by environmental psychology theory, which suggests, “[w]e don’t like large spaces and we seek out arousal in certain circumstances and settings.” Somewhere on the top curve of an inverted U is a crowding sweet spot that makes us feel safe, interested, and ready to buy.
Expectations regarding the number of other shoppers you’ll find in a store play a significant role in how you’ll respond to the crowd actually there. If you expect a store to be empty and find it packed, you’re far more likely to be put off by it than if you go in expecting a crowd, according to researchers Karen A. Machleit, Sevgin A. Eroglu, and Susan Powell Mantel. Interestingly, the longer you’re in a store, the less you’ll feel stressed by crowding from the layout and other shoppers. Eroglu, Machleit, and Terri Feldman Barr discovered that shoppers who spent more than 60 minutes in a store didn’t report as much negativity about crowds; the researchers think it could be explained by adaptation theory, which says that we notice a stimulus less over time. When Mom took you to an overcrowded store after Thanksgiving, she wasn't lying when she said you'd get used to it.
Researchers looking at major shopping dates such as Black Friday report that crowds actually drive sales and make shopping fun for some people. Sang-Eun Byun and Manveer Kaur Mann found that shoppers in crowded stores experience more negative emotions and fewer positive ones, but stores come out on top due to crowds creating a sense of competition. They explain, “when perceived human crowding is associated with perceived competition, it does elicit positive emotions such as joy, excitement, and thrill.” In fact, we care so much about other customers that perceived similarity to them makes us like a mall more, and what they buy helps us to determine how much we like a retailer.
Even music can shape how much we experience crowding, and conversely, crowds impact how much we like piped-in music. Researchers that played music near a long undergraduate registration line found that music made people feel better when the crowd was smaller, but music became a liability once the crowd got bigger. In another study, both utilitarian and hedonic shoppers preferred a mix of slow music with a high density of shoppers and fast music in a less busy store, presumably to make the space feel less empty. The last thing you want to hear while reaching over someone for the last box of icing sugar is “Carol of the Bells.”
The feeling of crowding can also depend on our culture: how much space we’re used to having and attitudes about one’s relationship to others. The connection between culture and the feeling of crowding was theorized back in the ’70s and has been confirmed in a comparative study that looks at feelings about crowd density in both Mexico and Canada. Yet much of what researchers found seems to be cross-cultural. Competitive and busy night markets along with hypermarkets (a supermarket and a department store smashed into one mega shop) in Taiwan give shoppers positive feelings. Shoppers at a hypermarket in India had a response to density of bodies that followed the same inverted U-shaped trend seen elsewhere.
The cross-cultural excitement at crowding even extends into the past. When discussing the experience of shopping in the shortage economies of former Socialist nations, present-day Eastern Europeans speak of the experience with a certain pride at having beaten their fellow consumers and the state in the hunt for goods. Our inner animal avoids large, empty places and sees crowds as exciting — so too do the most social and competitive among us replicate the thrill of the hunt in crowded malls and stores.