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'Shoptimism,' 'Making the Grades'

SHOPTIMISM: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What, by Lee Eisenberg. Free Press, 334 pp., $26.

 

With the results of another holiday shopping season being tallied, it's a fitting time to read Lee Eisenberg's "Shoptimism," which examines the psychology of the American shopper and the lengths to which retailers go to decode it.

The book identifies several archetypal shoppers and defines their spending habits. "The classic buyer buys, or tries to buy, from the head down: relies on reason, compares prices, weighs benefits, all in search of good value," Eisenberg writes. "For romantics, the heart, not the head, is the lonely hunter (or gatherer)." If you don't identify as a classic or romantic, perhaps you're a typical Martian or Venusian (man or woman, respectively), or maybe you fall into the dangerous "Stop Me Before I Buy Again" category. It will be easy for most American consumers to see a bit of themselves in at least one of these models and get some perspective on their own shopping tendencies.

For their part, retailers and marketers are culling data on consumers and dumping them into metaphoric "microbuckets" in an effort to figure out - at an extraordinarily granular level - what certain people want.

Eisenberg visits one company's marketing division that breaks households into groups like "small-town contentment," "blue-collar backbone" and "American diversity," and then splits them further into subgroups. And the data harvest on consumers doesn't stop there: Some neuroscientists are now doing brain scan studies to figure out, for example, what distinguishes a cheapskate from a spendthrift.

The book is divided into two parts, "Them Versus You" and "You Versus You," effectively defining our urge to splurge as a constant battle. But by casting light on the many factors that influence purchases, "Shoptimism" gives readers the chance to take control of their spending and to do it more efficiently.

 

MAKING THE GRADES: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry, by Todd Farley. PoliPoint, 253 pp., $16.95 paper.

 

With another college application season now behind us - the time when standardized tests become the fixation of high school seniors and admissions boards everywhere - Todd Farley's memoir, "Making the Grades," argues for taking the results of these and other ballyhooed exams with a heavy dose of skepticism.

Farley spent almost 15 years working in the standardized testing industry for grades K-12, starting as an entry-level scorer and eventually becoming a test writer and scoring trainer who lived high on his expense account. His experiences led him to conclude that these tests are "less a precise tool to assess students' exact abilities than just a lucrative means to make indefinite and indistinct generalizations about them."

Throughout his career, grade manipulation was the norm. He and other leaders would change scores or toss some out in order to achieve "reliability," a measure of how frequently different readers scored a question the same way. Among scorers, he writes, "the questions were never about what a student response might have deserved; the questions were only about what score to give to ensure statistical agreement." Once, he and his fellow scorers changed standards midway through the scoring process when a representative from a state department of education objected to the large number of midlevel scores.

Ethics weren't the only problem. The guidelines used to assess the responses were often vague, and answers were awarded points based on absurd criteria. Farley's account is often downright funny, particularly in one case where students had to list their favorite food and describe its taste. The scorers hotly debated whether grass is a food, if pizza can be considered salty, and whether a food can be both sweet and bitter.

The book would have packed a greater punch if it had incorporated the experiences of others in the industry, allowing readers to know whether Farley's career was the exception or the rule. Still, his anecdotes add up to sharp criticism of an industry deeply entwined in our education system.

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