Healthy Economy

Faux Snakeskin and Power Suits

In her tailored navy-blue blouse and dark pinstriped trousers, Minjeong Kim looks all business — muted, buttoned-down. But then you notice her shoes. Sitting at her desk in Milam Hall, she lifts her foot to show off the wedged sneaker with its hidden two-and-a-half-inch heel.

Minjeong Kim studies consumer behavior with a focus on Internet shopping. (Photo: Chris Becerra)
Minjeong Kim studies consumer behavior with a focus on Internet shopping. (Photo: Chris Becerra)

In her tailored navy-blue blouse and dark pinstriped trousers, Minjeong Kim looks all business — muted, buttoned-down. But then you notice her shoes. Sitting at her desk in Milam Hall, she lifts her foot to show off the wedged sneaker with its hidden two-and-a-half-inch heel. “These,” she says, “are from Nike’s ‘Sky Hi’ line.”

Her conservative outfit accessorized with edgy footwear nicely captures the complexity and contradictions in the world of apparel, a world Kim inhabits as a researcher in the School of Design and Human Environment at Oregon State University. In her closet at home, for example, hangs a pair of flame-red, faux-snakeskin pants (relics from her 20s that she keeps for nostalgia) right alongside the smart power suits she favors in her role as an associate dean in OSU’s College of Business.

“I enjoy the multidimensionality of apparel — a hot-night look, a career look, a casual look,” she says. “There are different meanings attached to clothes. They’re rich with culture, symbolism, memory and sensory experience.”

Beyond the Ivory Tower

As a child in South Korea, Kim dreamed of being a cartoonist until turning her artistic eye to the field of fashion. After studying textile science and clothing design in Seoul, she headed to Ohio State for advanced degrees in consumer sciences. Meanwhile, she solidified her ivory-tower education in the trenches — doing technical design for Abercrombie & Fitch and later for Lane Bryant and Express. It was then that she first saw the industry’s underbelly — the hot, grimy factories where workers put needle and thread to a designer’s vision. “Scary” is Kim’s adjective for the frenzied sample rooms of New York City’s Garment District, where she saw “many immigrants” sewing for long hours and “small money” in “unsanitary conditions.”

Today, Kim’s hands-on experience guides her scholarly research into the mysteries of consumer behavior, from solitary online shopping to the all-too-common mob antics at Black Friday “door-buster” sales, when customers push, pepper-spray and even trample each other to save a few dollars on an advertised item. Her insider’s view is a boon to her teaching, too. For students who aspire to careers as fashion designers, buyers, marketers or creative directors, Kim’s professional knowledge and network are golden.

“Staying relevant to the industry is so critical,” she notes.

Reading Is Believing

Understanding why people buy, especially online, is what drives much of Kim’s current research. She tries to get inside shoppers’ minds as they browse a corporate website for a warm winter jacket or a special-occasion dress.Shopping-web

“My work is about how people process information to drive decision-making,” she explains. “It has a twofold goal: to make a contribution to understanding human psychology, and to help retailers build websites that meet the needs of consumers and facilitate decision-making.”

When clothing retailers first ventured into Internet sales in the 1990s, Kim was skeptical. “I was not convinced people would buy apparel online,” she admits. “How do they make a decision without touching, without trying on? A brick-and-mortar store is sensory. Consumers can explore, collect information. It’s a learning process. Being online is a completely different way of experiencing shopping. It felt impossible to me.”

Her initial skepticism led to a series of research questions. “I wanted to figure out what makes people buy online. What facilitates decision-making? How should apparel be presented?”

Her findings have upset certain longstanding beliefs in the industry. Take, for instance, the relative importance of visual versus verbal information in consumer attitudes and behavior online. Earlier consumer studies minimized the role of written text in buying decisions. But Kim and her research collaborator, Sharron Lennon from Indiana University, found that verbal information has a significant role in turning an online browser into a buyer. It was a critical discovery for Internet retailers frustrated by high rates of “shopping-cart abandonment” (when a customer changes her mind and doesn’t proceed to check-out) in virtual stores, where only about 3 percent of shoppers actually plunk down their credit cards.

This text-based boost to sales runs counter to common wisdom, Kim says. Consumer studies from the 1980s “generally supported the idea that visual information is superior to verbal information” in shaping consumers’ attitudes and, by extension, their purchasing decisions, she and Lennon write in the journal Psychology & Marketing. Yet their study, a simulated online shopping experiment, found that “despite evidence from previous literature supporting picture superiority,” the amount of verbal information significantly influenced not only attitudes but also buying decisions among the test subjects.

“Construction details and style information provide concrete information about apparel products,” the researchers note. They offer these examples from their experimental website: The pointed collar and barrel cuffs, pearl buttons for front closure, rounded shirt bottom, and single chest pocket; two layers of silk with a sheer top, a pattern of slender roses with delicate, thorny stems in deep brown and green, transparent seed and bugle beads across the upper layer.

“The online experience should help you engage in mental imagery,” Kim says. “It should help you picture how the item will mix and match with your wardrobe at home. If you’re shopping for a special occasion or a vacation, it should help you imagine wearing it at a party or on the beach.

“Having more concrete description helps you to better imagine the product, giving you more confidence to buy,” she says. “Shoppers perceive less risk when they feel more knowledgeable about the product.”

Other findings from Kim’s investigations tell us that Internet retailers who run out of stock risk not only losing immediate sales but also alienating buyers forever, especially if the shopper has chosen the item before discovering it’s gone. Black Friday shoppers, too, have defied predictions in Kim’s studies. Excessive crowding doesn’t anger these bargain hunters and sidewalk campers, as she first posited; on the contrary, most post-Thanksgiving Day shoppers relish the festival atmosphere. It’s when they feel misled by bait-and-switch ads that they go from being “happy as larks” to “mad as hornets.” These and other findings have appeared in scholarly journals such as Journal of Business Research, Computers in Human Behavior, Psychology & Marketing, and The Service Industries Journal among many others.

Glitz and Grit

By its very nature, clothing is laden with contradictions. Superficial at first glance, clothes can hold deep significance for the wearer, Kim observes. What we wear (to a wedding, a wake, a game, a pub, a protest, a trial, a concert, a christening, a blind date) is personal but also carries rich cultural content. Functional on an everyday level (it keeps us warm and dry and covered), it also encodes meaning for the wearer’s identity, expressing our taste, values, even politics. Clothing has, in fact, garnered First Amendment protection as a form of free speech and personal expression.Sweatshops-fashion

The apparel industry — a $1.7 billion global behemoth that designs, sews, markets, distributes and sells our clothes — is an amalgam of glitz and grit, Kim has discovered during her years in the field. The bone-thin girls modeling the latest styles on high-fashion runways might seem unconnected from the bone-thin girls sewing garments in grimy sweatshops. But they are two ends of the same industry, one that employs 75 million people worldwide.

Kim is painfully aware of these polarities. She saw her first sweatshop as a technical designer of knit dresses made in the Philippines. “The workers were just kids, girls who were still in their mid-teens,” she says. “One day I noticed that no one was eating lunch during their half-hour break. They had their heads down on the tables beside their sewing machines. I asked the factory manager about it. He said, ‘They don’t have money to buy lunch.’ It was heartbreaking.”

Back at her five-star hotel, Kim — a diehard coffee lover — found that she could no longer justify her daily $5 Starbucks latte. For the next year she went latte-free, remembering those adolescent seamstresses who had no lunch.

Being part of an industry with a mixed record on worker rights requires a kind of stereovision, the ability to see simultaneously the good and the not-so-good. Like a parent who loves a wayward child, Kim holds out hope for reform. For her, it’s a question of business ethics. She once worked with a talented buyer whose credentials included luxury department stores in major U.S. cities. “He had a great eye for fashion, for what sells,” she says. “But he didn’t see the big picture, the connectedness of everything, because he didn’t have an understanding of the production side of the industry. He wasn’t aware of how corporate-level decisions would impact someone’s life on the other end of the industry spectrum.”

In the sweatshops of Southeast Asia during the 1990s, Kim saw firsthand the wretched conditions that have stirred protests among human-rights activists and spurred consumer boycotts. “The apparel industry gives a lot of opportunities to women, especially in developing countries,” she notes. “It’s labor-intensive, so it creates jobs. But there’s a vicious cycle of poverty that most of the workers will never get out of. They are barely surviving.”

Inside the Gray Matter

After a lot of soul searching buttressed by extensive reading (including Banker to the Poor about social entrepreneurship and micro-lending by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus), Kim has resolved to turn her heartbreak to action for the young Filipino workers and others around the world. “In the long run, I want to use the skills, knowledge and network I have to help women in developing countries,” she says. “There are 10 million people out there in poverty. If they have a little support, they can have a different quality of life. I want to contribute to closing the gap.”

As for her consumer research, the next step is to move from indirect studies of shopper psychology (inferring attitudes, feelings and behaviors via surveys and controlled experiments) to direct studies (using fMRI technology to scan the brains of subjects while they shop, browse and buy). Inspired by books such as The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by technology writer Nicholas Carr and by earlier findings that brand loyalty and religion light up the same areas of our brains, Kim is eager to get down to the gray matter.

“Humans’ brains are changing how they function,” she says. “As people use the Internet more, it’s harder for them to engage in linear thinking. Now it’s more of a spiral.”