To Buy Or Not to Buy? That Is Not the Question: Female Ritual in Home Shopping Parties

ABSTRACT - A participant observation study Of home shopping parties was undertaken to explore the seemingly irrational and coercive aspects of party purchasing. Consideration of the meanings with which party shopping and buying are invested by female shoppers suggests these activities must be viewed in a much broader context than that of simple economic transactions Shopping parties offer unusual opportunities to foster personal relationships among segregated individuals in an atomized society through participation in the rituals of a moral economy. At the same time, the parties play a part in the cultural definition of female roles and the very construct of "femininity" itself.


Brenda Gainer and Eileen Fischer (1991) ,"To Buy Or Not to Buy? That Is Not the Question: Female Ritual in Home Shopping Parties", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 597-602.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 597-602


Brenda Gainer, York University

Eileen Fischer, York University


A participant observation study Of home shopping parties was undertaken to explore the seemingly irrational and coercive aspects of party purchasing. Consideration of the meanings with which party shopping and buying are invested by female shoppers suggests these activities must be viewed in a much broader context than that of simple economic transactions Shopping parties offer unusual opportunities to foster personal relationships among segregated individuals in an atomized society through participation in the rituals of a moral economy. At the same time, the parties play a part in the cultural definition of female roles and the very construct of "femininity" itself.

Interest in the experience of shopping and the meaning it holds for consumers has grown among researchers in recent years (Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988; Rook 1987; Sherry and McGrath 1989). In fact, companies which market goods through home shopping parties have long recognized that shopping can be more than a search for product attributes a tacit understanding Of the social and recreational facets of shopping itself has helped them to structure social situations which facilitate sales. Recently, investigators have begun to explore how interpersonal influences are tapped to stimulate effective party selling (Prus and Frisby 1989) and how the act Of buying (vs the objects purchased) leads to social utility (Frenzen and Davis 1990). These studies have provided valuable contributions to our awareness or the connection between buyer-seller relationships and the purchase decision. They provide limited insight, however, into the particularly female nature of the party shopping experience This study examines the meanings that participation in home shopping parties holds for the women who attend them, and explores how the experience draws on and preserves gender role stereotypes The study thus helps to account for some of the success of party shopping as well to increase our understanding of the meaning and use of shopping by women more generally


Home shopping parties depend on a dealer, most often a woman, finding another woman to host a party to which she invites her friends to shop for a specific product. Products marketed in this way range from plastic housewares through children's toys, craft items, copperware, crystal and cosmetics to seductive lingerie and kinky sex aids The hostess of a party typically receives a reward for her "work" in finding purchasers; the size of this reward depends on the quantity of goods her friends buy The hostess also receives rewards based on the number of her guests who agree to host further parties or become dealers. The dealer receives a commission on the sales made at her parties, as well as a royalty on all sales made by dealers she has recruited. Thus, from the dealer's point of view, the product being sold is as much future party dates or potential dealerships (i.e. the party plan) as the goods being demonstrated (Biggart 1989).

Two observations about these parties form the point of departure for this study. First, despite the vast array of goods sold this way, and despite the fact that lucrative possibilities might exist if men's social networks were tapped, these parties are almost exclusively attended by women. Second, research indicates that guests are often buying out of a sense of obligation to either the hostess or dealer as well as, or instead of, out of a desire to obtain a needed good (Frenzen and Davis 1990; Prus and Frisby 1 989).

How can we explain the observations that women make the majority of home party purchases, and do not behave like a prototypical "economic man" engaged in a classical search process for desirable product attributes when they do so? One cultural notion, perpetuated in popular literature, jokes and comic strips, is that women are irrational creatures, completely unable to control themselves in the face of consumer temptation. Women are colloquially characterized as hopelessly susceptible to the buying impulse, as described by Rook (1987). We can dismiss this interpretation on several counts Attending a home party-is a planned, not an impulsive, behavior. Moreover, not every woman who is invited to a party attends it. In order to make sense of why women (and only women) participate as they do in home shopping, and thus offer a superior interpretation of their behavior, it was necessary to rind a means of understanding their experiences from their own points of view.


The method chosen for this study was participant observation. Numerous recent articles have appeared in consumer behavior advocating the use of methods like participant observation to develop deep understandings of consumer phenomena in consumers' own terms (Belk, Sherry and Wallondorf 1988; Hirschman 1986; Sherry and McGrath 1989; Thompson, Locander and Pollio 1989). Interpretive methods are particularly useful in probing socio-cultural factors involved in shopping which may be impossible to capture through the use of more typical instruments of marketing research.

A factor which confirmed our decision to use the participant observation method was that, although we had attended shopping parties as "lay people" and found them not altogether unpleasant, coercive events, preliminary interviews we undertook with party shoppers revealed a tendency for informants to emphasize the unpleasant, coercive aspects of party shopping. Published research has also described the resentment party shoppers feel at "having to" attend parties (and hence buy products) because they were asked by people who were expecting them to (Prus and Frisby 1989). This reported resentment contrasted not only with our personal observations as members of seemingly happy party shopping groups, but also with the statistical evidence that this shopping channel is extremely successful We speculate that party shoppers are embarrassed to talk about buying things that they don't strictly "need" in front of people whom they perceive as educated consumer "experts" and are therefore more likely to emphasize the coercive aspects of party shopping over the pleasure they provide when they are overtly questioned. In any event, we felt that the typical marketing research survey or even depth interviews might not provide sufficient insight into women's reasons for participating in home shopping parties, and the meanings these parties hold.

Accordingly, we adopted the technique of participant observation as a means Of gaining insight into the seeming paradox of resentment of shopping being coupled with frequent and often enthusiastic attendance and purchasing it must be emphasized that this initial study is deliberately narrowly focussed to achieve depth at the expense of breadth, and we make no pretense to "representativeness" or "generalizabilily" The project was conceived as an attempt to develop an ethnographic record and an interpretive framework that could lead to broader theoretical investigation in the future

Our data were collected through attendance at five home shopping parties, three for Tupperware plastic houseware, which is one of the original party products, and two for Discovery Toys, a relative newcomer to the party shopping scene For both companies, we contacted a dealer, explained our research interests, and asked if they would be willing to arrange for us to attend several of their parties We attended the parties individually, in order to minimize our intrusion into a small gathering of people, most of whom were well-known to one another. The dealers checked with their hostesses to make sure we would be welcome, and apparently none of the hostesses showed any reluctance to have us attend their parties. The dealers explained to the hostesses that we were a student and a professor of marketing "interested in home shopping." None of the hostesses passed this information on to their guests. Most of the guests initially assumed we were with the dealer, either to help her or to receive training as novice dealers ourselves. During conversation with the guests we made no attempt to hide the fact that we were doing research in order to write an article about party shopping, but none of the guests to whom this was stated showed any interest in this fact or seemed to become self-conscious or change their behavior in any way We both made a point of participating in any games that were held at our parties, joining in conversation nd buying products; one of us went so far as to attend the toy parties with a small baby. In order to minimize the intrusive- effect of our attendance we did not take notes at the parties or tape record any Of the proceedings. Instead we relied on very extensive field notes which we wrote immediately after leaving the parties. We supplemented these notes by lengthy conversations with the dealers in which we checked some of our perceptions as well as factual information regarding individual purchases and sales totals.

Across the parties attended, guests and party hostesses with a broad range of ages and social classes were observed. The youngest guest (excluding the children of guests and hostesses) was in her early twenties; he eldest was in her sixties. At one party, the hostess and guests in attendance all appeared lobe of the lower to lower middle social class; at others, the hostesses and guests could be classified as middle to upper middle class.


One Of the most striking features of all the parties we attended was that nearly everyone in attendance bought something, or at least promised to do so in a few days. This near-universality of purchase is in marked contrast to shopping behavior in stores or other direct sales channels such as catalogues. While purchasing something was the norm for parties in which we participated, however, we observed several distinct types of purchase behavior

The most numerous shoppers were the "enthusiasts"; these were people who purchased at least one major item quickly and spent upwards of $30.00 easily. These people usually discussed the products knowledgeably, and had been to other shopping parties for the product before, often with many of the same people A second small groups of shoppers made what clearly seemed to be token purchases Interestingly enough, each of them bought two small items and not just one, thus raising their total purchase to between $15 and $20 even though there were small single items available for under $10 These shoppers appeared to be indecisive about their orders, and often were among the last guests to go up to the dealer with their order form We noted that the women who made such token purchases appeared least integrated into the group and had the weakest social or familial connection with the hostess.

Violations to the norm of purchasing did occur at one party, the woman who appeared to be least integrated purchased nothing: it became evident towards the end of the party that she was out Of work The dealer confided later that non purchasing was unusual behavior and attributed it to the fact that the woman couldn't afford to buy. We observed, however, that another woman at the sa ne party was also out of work and did make a token purchase The unemployed woman who made no purchase had never met the hostess prior to the party and attended because a friend of the hostess had invited her; the unemployed woman who made a token purchase had a strong social connection to the hostess. Only four other people were observed to buy nothing at the parties; in two eases they were close relatives of the hostess (a sister and a sister-in-law). The other two gave elaborate explanations to the hostess, indicating that they had to check with their husbands, but would certainly call her with their order in a few days Finally, during each party we attended it became evident that some people had been invited who had either refused or left some ambiguity about their possible attendance and in the end didn't appear.

Some of these observations confirm the findings of Prus and Frisby that, in general, women do not attend home shopping parties unless they are prepared to make purchases The "norm of purchasing" seemed to be widely accepted given that most people who had little desire for the products still felt compelled to either buy some small items or offer repeated excuses as to why they were not Other people had seemingly elected not to accept the invitation, "probably because [they] didn't need any toys now," as one guest put it The only exceptions to participation in the ritual of compulsory purchase (or excuses and apologies) was one woman who was not connected to the hostess, and who was experiencing financial difficulties, and two who were close relatives of the hostess At the same lime, it seemed quite obvious that not all of the women who were making purchases wanted the goods they were buying. Some of them proclaimed this fact quite openly, as in the case of one woman who conscripted the researcher to help her choose her goods "because [she] already had all this sluff, but [she] had to buy something!" In fact, she purchased over $60 worth of merchandise

Why do women who are not interested in buying the goods offered at such parties, or who can purchase comparable products in stores if they are interested, attend parties and accept their coercive aspects? Prus and Frisby report that some subjects say they have to attend them because they're asked, but that they resent it. Yet if resentment is the main outcome of attending shopping parties, why do so many women continue to attend so many different parties? And, more puzzling still, why do hostesses continue to invite guests and therefore presumably endanger their friendship ties?

Based on our observations and analyses, we suggest that party shopping has thrived and continues to thrive because parties foster, rather than threaten, friendship ties In effect, they support a "moral economy based primarily upon social exchanges rather than exchanges of goods or money. Cheal (1989) argues that the reciprocal nature of gift giving is a means of ritually constructing social worlds through economically redundant transactions Public gift-giving allows people to give social recognition to relationships; reciprocal giving facilitates the reinforcement of relationships over a span of time (Cheal 1989) The purchase of unnecessary or unwanted articles is not, then, so much an irrational "waste" of money as "gift" given to the hostess. Obviously the goods purchased are not themselves gifts, for both their economic value and practical use remains with the guest, not the hostess. However the hostess does receive material benefit as a result of the guest's purchase, namely credit towards free merchandise. The hostess is well aware of the value of each person's "gift" to her, because the goods for all her guests are delivered to her and she distributes the orders to her friends (and in some eases even collects the payment for them). Thus, the guests purchases are analogous to flowers or a bottle of wine one might offer the host or hostess of a dinner party

Frenzen and Davis (1990) report that the strength of social ties binding buyers to hostesses and dealers has a positive impact on the likelihood Of purchase at home shopping parties. We, however, observed that while women with lesser social connections might fail to purchase, they felt they had to justify this behavior; those with closer ties were able to refrain from purchasing without explanation This observation helped us to deal with an aspect of our interpretation which remained perplexing: if party purchases actually constitute a gift to the hostess, Why is it that women involved in this moral economy do not simply buy their plastics or toys at a store when they need them, an give their hostess a conventional gift on more generally recognized ritual occasions such as Christmas and birthdays? Upon reflection, we realized that while Christmas (and other more traditional gift giving occasions, like birthdays) provide a forum for recognizing and reinforcing the closest family lies (Caplow 1982), such events as home shopping parties create a less common opportunity for publicly recognizing more distant family and social relationships as well. Particularly for women, to whom the work of fostering the extended network of social relationships often falls, home shopping parties provide an opportunity to engage in the gift-giving rituals of the moral economy with non-kin who are often excluded from Christmas or other major rituals.

This interpretation suggests that although women may emphasize the coercive aspects of shopping parties when questioned directly, they experience home shopping parties as an opportunity to construct the personal relationships which constitute their "small world" They "have to" say yes to invitations because their social relationships are important and they tacitly recognize the value of opportunities to maintain them. Close relatives (who have the opportunity to engage in ritual gift-giving with kin on festive occasions) or people with little connection to the hostess (who presumably construct their small worlds elsewhere) are the only people likely to attend a party and not buy This does not suggest that none of the other shoppers are interested in purchasing the goods offered for sale at home parties, of course Often the buyers are enthusiastic users, some even collectors, of the products. The idea of the gift, however, explains why people who want the product would choose to purchase it in the more expensive forum of a friend's party than in a store, and also explains why people who don't want the product would attend a party and buy it. It also explains why a hostess would ask her friends to spend their money in this way. She is, in fact, not coercing them but providing them with an opportunity to interact with her by providing her with "redundant" goods that she could afford to purchase on her own if she wished. It is likely that, in her turn, she will attend parties they host and m. kc purchases Though inefficient from an economic perspective, this pattern of behavior does allow the women to maintain something of value to them: their social ties with others.

What of the women who refused to attend or did not show? Did they sever relationships within their social networks? This remains unclear, since we did not talk to non-attenders or hear them talked much about. However, we speculate, based on conversations about other parties which many shoppers had attended, that there is sufficient redundancy in the chains of parties that individuals who maintain their small worlds in this manner may miss some parties so long as they attend others.


A second aspect Of home shopping parties which we sought to explain is their overwhelmingly feminine nature Although men may be involved in the higher management and ownership levels of companies which specialize in home shopping parties, the dealers, hostesses and guests are overwhelmingly female. It was suggested above that one of the reasons women are more involved in party shopping than men is because women are socialized to do more of the "relationship work" in society. This does not seem to offer a full explanation of the lack Of male customers at shopping parties or the dearth of male-oriented products marketed in this way, however: while men may be less involved in major gift-giving rituals such as Christmas and birthdays, they never the less participate extensively in the gift economy

The sexual division of labor in contemporary society suggests that attendance at home shopping parties is almost exclusively female because shopping is one of the household tasks traditionally allocated to women certainly a number of women we observed seemed to consider their attendance to be part of their domestic burden This often became apparent when husbands' whereabouts were discussed For example, women at all the parties that were not attended by children were heard to explain that their husbands had agreed to baby-sit because, as one woman expressed it, "he knows I have to do the shopping" One young woman, a new mother, was out for the first time without the baby; she explained that the child was being cared for by her husband who, she said, did not consider baby-sitting to be his job. Apparently he had agreed to care for their child and allow her to shop only for the minimum amount of little in which one could conceivably buy plastics; she (and two other young women at the same party whose husbands were baby-sitting) left early. Interestingly, at three parties the women who seemed most concerned about having to justify their attendance to their husbands were the most formally attired While their husbands accepted shopping parties as "housework," their clothing seemed appropriate for the leisure and entertainment provided by a party Perhaps these women experienced greater tension because their husbands, observing these clothes, sensed the social aspect of the shopping party, and were less accepting of this form of shopping as part of their wives' normal duties As one reviewer noted, shopping parties may function as an inexpensive "girls' night out," and in some social strata, few acceptable venues for such exclusively female evening social activities exist.

A number of women seemed to use the performance of their task of nurturing and caring for other family members to justify their expenditures. The woman with the largest total bill at any of the parties we attended ($127.00) announced each item she was purchasing to another shopper and prefaced each remark with a phrase like "my kids can make hamburgers more easily with this press," "my kids love salads," or "my husband needs this when he barbecues " Another woman purchasing a large set of cupboard organizers slated that her husband hated messy cupboards At the toy parties, several of the women buying the most costly items agreed that they were extravagant but "really educational." These attempts to justify large expenditures appeared to be quite effective The "big spenders" did not seem to feel guilty or worried about their purchases; in fact, most of the shoppers who bought anything but the smallest amounts seemed excited and pleased about buying the merchandise.

Overall, it appeared that many women viewed partly shopping and buying as a justifiable part of their domestic work; at the same time, they took pleasure in the activity. Concepts developed by Valadez and Clignet (1984) help to explain these observations. These authors suggested that domestic work is a cultural ordeal of both civility and conviviality By an ordeal of civility, they mean a recurring test of who "passes" as a member of a certain cultural group; by an ordeal of conviviality, they mean a symbolic demonstration of signs of fraternity (or, in this case, sorority). These ideas help make sense of the emphasis some shoppers placed on characterizing shopping as a means of caring for their families, and of some of the pleasure they look in the event.

It is a type of ordeal of civility, or effort to signal membership in the social category of "good wife and mother," to stress that products are purchased judiciously in the interests of the family we observed that women who appeared to have a more modern conception of women's roles engaged in this behavior to the same extent as more "traditional" women the only difference we found between seemingly traditional and seemingly modern women was in their product focus and thus the particular aspect of domestic work they emphasized For example, the most traditional women we observed were at a party in a middle class Italian suburb of a major eastern city. Despite the women's range of ages, marital statuses and working statuses, their emphasis was on how the plastic housewares facilitated family food preparation A great deal or talk concerned the relationship between the individual products offered for sale and caring for specific family members and their individual tastes and needs. These women showed very little interest in the toys or the decorator items offered for sale The most modern women we observed were attending a toy party in a middle class neighborhood in a major western city. These women were college educated professionals; a lawyer, a college professor and an engineer were among the guests, and all of the women at the party were combining motherhood with full-time careers. Their conversation was exclusively devoted to their children's development, or their family plans for Christmas or Hanukkah celebrations A third party, held in an upper-middle class Jewish suburb of a major eastern city, was attended by college-educated women who were almost all full-time homemakers These women concentrated on the plastic decorator and organizational items and their discussion centered on homes and their relative features such as closets, cupboards and basements.

Despite the array of personal styles and subjects of conversation described here, topics discussed at all the parties we attended were the traditional female tasks of cooking, decorating, household management and child-rearing Moreover, although the shoppers at each partly shared most Or the same domestic tasks, there seemed to be an awareness of varying degrees of skill on the part of the shoppers with regard to the performance of them. On the one hand, the group seemed to provide help and reassurance for the insecure or inexpert shoppers. At all of the parties, some women were clearly seeking advice from others One woman remarked to the researcher that she shopped at parties because she found the advice and experience of the other shoppers beneficial This woman described herself as not being a very "smart" shopper, unlike some of the others whom she pointed out as being quite "smart" Another woman asked the researcher for help "because [she] always went home with a lot of junk [she] didn't want " At the same time as some women were asking for help with their purchases, others were offering advice At one party in particular, one of the women who clearly had a great deal of experience with the product made a point of telling the other guests what they should get after quickly pulling in a large order herself. At all of the parties the women discussed not only their purchases, but their reasons for making them.

Thus it seems that one Of the purposes home shopping parties serve is as a showcase for women's membership in the "wife/mother" role and their relative skill at performing the shopping aspect of this role. In this situation, "success" did not seem to be judged on the basis of finding bargains or unique or unusual items. Instead, success seemed to be judged by how well the purchase represented an act of caring for the family or home. The parties served to confirm the image of the secure, self-confident shoppers as successful homemakers, wives and mothers The insecure, nervous shoppers received encouragement and reassurance from the experts" that their purchases also enabled them to pass" the requirements for inclusion among the good wives and mothers. Thus party shopping seems to serve as a symbolic opportunity for women to take and pass the "test" for demonstrating characteristics traditionally prescribed for women in North American society, namely those associated with domesticity and nurturing.

At the same time as there seemed to be a recognition that some people were "better" shoppers than others, there seemed to be a general spirit of cooperation at all the parties. For all that shopping seemed to serve as a symbolic test of fit within socially prescribed female roles, the party guests appeared cager to ensure that everyone ultimately "passed " At one party a particularly indecisive woman was unable to place her order even when all the other guests had made theirs; at this point they all joined in helping her, discussing all the possible pros and cons of each of the products she was considering and asking detailed questions about her family and house. No one showed signs of impatience at the length of this discussion.

This behavior has led us to characterize the shopping party as not only an "ordeal of civility" but also as an "ordeal of conviviality" Parties serve both as a means of displaying distinctly feminine characteristics and as a forum to reaffirm and strengthen the bonds of sorority. This interpretation is supported and extended by our observations concerning what happened when men interrupted parties.

Generally, the parties had much of the flavor of a bridal shower,- a sorority meeting, or even an adolescent girl's pajama party: the sense of a private ritual being performed away from men was marked at one party, for example, when asked where her husband was, the hostess said "I sent him away" When he returned later, while the party was still in full swing, conversation immediately broke off and the guests became self-conscious and began to make moves to leave Many of the women present knew this man well as a neighbor and friend, and some stayed to chat with him and his wife about neighborhood affairs in the kitchen. The atmosphere had subtly changed when he arrived, however, and the dealer began to pack up while the women started to talk about other things than shopping Another party which was held after dinner in a distant suburb of a major eastern city began with children present. After half an hour several husbands showed up on their way home from work to lake the children home to baby-sit As each woman invaded the party there was a great deal of giggling and leasing while some women simply looked embarrassed Even at the two parties we attended in very large houses with several separate living areas, the husbands were not simply banished from the room in which the partly was held but sent out of the house altogether.

Smith-Rosenberg suggests that rigid gender-role differentiation within the family and within society generally led to the emotional segregation of men and women in the 18th and 19th centuries and that as a result women formed their close emotional ties with other women with whom they shared a "female world" of mutual support, caring and ritual (1975). She relics on an understanding Of 19th century North American culture to explain the female emotional bonds and rituals of Victorian times, and suggests that weddings have persisted as one of the last female rituals remaining in twentieth-century America. While perhaps not so rigid, gender-role differentiation is still prevalent in contemporary society, and we suggest that home shopping parties constitute another particularly female ritual of the twentieth century in which women gather to celebrate and cooperate in the traditional female task of shopping. Interestingly, the shopping party seems to transcend the divisions of social class, education and ethnicity: they appear to have become a ritual female activity in North America used in the social construction of femininity itself.


This study has attempted to make sense of the success of the home shopping parties in the race or the reportedly coercive element underlying partly attendance and the seemingly irrational nature of party purchasing. An interpretation of partly shopping behaviors which focuses on the moral economy which party purchases support, and on the way shopping serves to establish and reinforce women's roles, helps to explain the partly shopping phenomenon.

Further, although this study was undertaken in the limited site of the home shopping partly, some of the ritual aspects of the consumer behavior observed here occur in a less obvious form in other retail settings. Women seem to shop together more than men do, for example, and frequently discuss shopping trips and purchases with each other. The social and cultural phenomena which we have described here can provide a basis for further investigation of the culturally rich and meaningful world of women's shopping.


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Cheal, David (1989), The Gift Economy, New York: Routledge.

Frenzen, Jonathan and Harry L. Davis (1990), "Purchasing Behavior in Embedded Markets," Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (1), 1-12.

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Prus, Robert and Wendy Frisby (1989), "Persuasion as Practical Accomplishment: Tactical Manoeuverings at Home Party Plans," in Helena Znaniccki Lopata (ed.) Current Research on Occupations and Professions: Societal Influences Greenwich, Connecticut: Jai Press.

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Brenda Gainer, York University
Eileen Fischer, York University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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