Own It

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by sofie kirk

What are you going to do on your summer vacation? Hang by the pool? Go camping? Binge on Netflix in an air-conditioned room?

Whatever it is, chances are it will involve purchasing something, be it sun lotion, a new tent or a case of cold bevvies for washing it all down. You likely won’t be able to help yourself.

According Russell Belk, buying stuff isn’t just about satisfying some seasonal to-do list.

In our instantaneous, acquisitively individualistic and self-­indulgent world, it’s all about fulfilling a fundamental need.

“Consumer behaviour contributes to our broader existence as human beings,” says the Schulich School of Business marketing professor, a world expert on the subject and meaning of materialism, and the power of objects over the self.

Consumerism has become a dominant force in people’s lives.

“I guess you could compare human society today to the ­Middle Ages and the role of the Catholic Church in Europe at that time. Consumption is our church and malls and online stores are our cathedrals,” says the U.S. native who came to York University 12 years ago as the Kraft Foods Canada Chair in Marketing.

“Because it’s so central to our lives now, I think it has become a viable topic for study.”

The good professor (the Royal Society of Canada made him a Fellow in 2017) allows he may be biased.

His father worked as an advertising agency production manager, and while growing up in Minnesota in the 1950s, Belk spent many hours around the dinner table discussing the impact of advertising on people’s purchasing behaviour.

Echoes of those early conversations ran deep.

When Belk went to college to study geophysics, he switched to English while taking a few business courses on the side. This led to a master’s in business at the University of ­Minnesota, where he fell in love with doing primary research on consumer habits and attitudes.

A doctoral thesis followed in 1972. But Belk’s big breakthrough came over a decade later when, with a camcorder in hand, he teamed up with John Sherry, an anthropologist, and Melanie Wallendorf, a sociologist, and embarked on what became known as the Consumer Behavior Odyssey.

The academic road trip took teams of like-minded researchers across America to interview consumers about their ­shopping habits and materialistic dreams.

“For me and the others who participated, it opened up the worlds of both qualitative research and visual methods,” says Belk, who established his international reputation with that study.

He later took the research and turned it into Possessions and the Extended Self, his seminal 1988 paper positing the idea that in today’s mainstream society belongings shape identities as much as, if not more so than, life experiences.

To accommodate the impact of the digital age on consumer behaviour in the 25 years since he published his report, in 2013 Belk provided an update for the Journal of Consumer Research.

“So much of what we do is digital now,” says Belk, presently co-editing a book on the sharing economy and its impact on marketing. “We no longer have a drawer of old love letters, we have texts. And we no longer have a photo album, we have a social media page and timeline and so forth.

“The question is, do these things really become a part of us? Do you become attached to your smartphone which does so many things for you? Or does the fact that you can post things to the cloud make it less of an attachment? And what happens when you can trade up?”

To answer these questions and more, come the fall Belk will teach a consumer behaviour class to students who have signed up for the new Master of Marketing degree program at Schulich, the first of its kind in Canada and specifically designed to train university graduates in professional ­marketing skills. Classes begin in September.

Topics for discussion will include the rise of robotics as brand mascots, anthropomorphism in product design, inconspicuous luxury, gift giving and collecting, to name a few of the subjects topping Belk’s own to-do list right now.

Each is an idea for an academic paper (or two or three) Belk plans to work on over the summer. He will be busy. But too busy to be buying stuff? Don’t count on it.

“I have already bought four new pairs of jeans – different colours – for the summer at Uniqlo … and of course more books from Amazon for my research. I don’t much enjoy shopping,” Belk says. But like the rest of us, he just can’t help it.

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