What happened to the law of attraction? It was an important topic for many years around the release of The Secret, but when I searched Google News today, there were no recent stories on law of attraction. If you go by what you see in the news, law of attraction is over.
There is trouble too in the department store sector. The news from the recent holiday shopping season is so dire that Sears and Kmart are preparing to close forever in the first half of this year, and other department store chains are scaling back their plans.
The way I see it, the decline in law of attraction and the decline in department stores are related. Something has changed in the way people relate to aspirations that make both ideas less important than they were a decade ago.
Yes, I realize I have connected two things that seem to have to nothing to do with each other, but when you look more closely, it makes perfect sense. Allow me to connect the dots.
Law of Attraction
First, what is law of attraction, and why has it fallen away in recent years? As presented in the book and DVD The Secret and a thousand other works from the same period, law of attraction is a spiritual law and an associated technique that allow you to convert your wishes into reality — to manifest the things you want the most — by correctly focusing your thoughts and emotions.
I believe most viewers and readers understood law of attraction in a shorthand form. The simplified “LoA” told them to maintain a positive mood and act as if there were no obstacles to the specific outcomes they had selected for themselves.
As a technique, that sounds too simple to be true — and it is. People who tried it took action that was not grounded in any kind of strategy or logic, with costly results. I believe I am living where I am now because a real estate investor decided he could simply double the rent for all of his tenants. Instead of bringing in more money, the house I had been living in went vacant for a long time after he evicted me. Almost anyone from that period can tell similar stories of large-scale endeavors that began in mindless optimism and ended badly.
One of those ill-fated endeavors was the merger of Sears and Kmart. At the time, Sears was declining and Kmart had gone bankrupt. I remember it was obvious to friends who knew almost nothing about retail that this arrangement made no sense. “How does combining two weak retail chains result in a strong company?” was the question. We all assumed that there was some kind of secret plan to remedy some of the flaws in the two retail giants. As it turned out, there never was a plan, only an attitude of optimism, and after years of losses, the combined company went into bankruptcy a few months ago. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Law of attraction works only if you can control your focus, and one of the most successful and widely used techniques for doing that was the vision board. A vision board is a simple cut-and-paste collage that represents the things you want. You can put it on the wall and look at it every day while basking in the glow of your imagined future acquisitions and achievements. Most people, when directed to create a vision board, would simply paste up photos cut out of catalogs and magazines. You might find photos of furniture you resonate with, fancier clothes than you have ever worn, vacation destinations, and other feel-good items.
In one sense, vision boards work, but in a more profound sense, they usually don’t work at all. Most people who made a vision board approached it as if they were selecting items from a catalog. In more than a few cases, they literally were just picking things out of a single catalog and pasting them up on the board. The result, obviously, was just a more cluttered rendering of the catalog that the pictures came from. So, yes, this kind of vision board “worked” if used correctly, but all you could expect it to do was generate more clutter in its owner’s life. More clutter was not what people really wanted. In most cases, it did nothing to make them more happy.
The vision board is only one of many LoA focusing techniques, but all share the same drawback. The problem is not a result of the focusing technique. Rather, the problem arises out of the idea of thinking of the world around you as if it were a catalog. Thinking this way, you tend to get only the things that commercial interests are selling, rather than the things you really want. The things you want the most will surely include things that currently do not exist in your life, even though, with some effort and good fortune, they could. You cannot arrive at the things you want most by limiting yourself to what already exists, yet this is what every LoA technique I have run across asks you to do.
There is a more fundamental problem. You have to know yourself in a profound sense before you can know what you really want. You have to know yourself well enough to be able to separate your true desires from the thoughts that were planted in you from outside, usually by commercial interests through television, advertising, and other media, or by childhood programming from your family and the surrounding culture. What good is it to manifest a product from an informercial only to discover that it isn’t what you thought it would be? That is not the kind of manifesting that makes a person happy.
What do you really want? Who are you, really? These are more difficult questions than they might seem at first, and I won’t outline the steps to properly answer them here. It is enough to note how you tend to learn the difficulties involved in these questions. You experience a series of disappointments after attaining things you thought you wanted. Some of the things are useless. Perhaps they are material objects and they mean so little, after you find out what they truly are, that you end up throwing them away. The accomplishments or experiences you might struggle for tend to look smaller after you reach them. The top of the mountain is just another place to stand. That college diploma means you now have to find a new place to live. I only barely remember my first blog post that had 1,000 views. As astonishing as that achievement was in the moment, it didn’t improve my life in any sense I could point to. I still had to go cook supper and wash my hair.
As you learn from these experiences, they can only make you more skeptical of the things you think you want. “Why do I want this thing?” you ask. In some cases you can study the psychology behind the desire and realize, “Oh — I want it because the facial expressions of the models in the advertisement made me imagine that they were on to something.” You realize you have been manipulated. You see how easily desires have been planted in your mind by the world outside.
The Wish Book and the Department Store
To connect all this to the department store, I have to take a step back. Remember the vision boards I mentioned, and the way a vision board might be made by cutting images from catalogs? The department store is based on the catalog in an even more profound way than the vision board is. Sears, the most successful department store of the 20th century, was a mail-order catalog before it was a department store. Borrowing lingo from the 21st century, the Sears store was meant as a fully interactive, 3-D printed version of the Sears catalog. One of the annual Sears catalogs was actually called the “Wish Book.” The name tells you how the catalog was designed to have the same kind of impact as a vision board — to create an energetic connection to things that you might have in the future. Back when printed catalogs were an important part of retail, people would circle items in pen on the pages of the catalog. It was a way of establishing a connection to an item that you couldn’t buy immediately. Done with the right energy, this had exactly the same effect as the vision board.
The department store tried to provide the same experience in a larger format. As a shopper, you were supposed to walk around and see what was available. Some of the products would have more appeal than others, and the ones that appealed to you the most were the ones you would buy, or at least you would wish for them. For years, Sears had the slogan, “We sell everything.” This was never literally true, but it reflected the ideal that you would see the store and catalog as the universe of available products, and therefore, the perfect place to go to make your selections.
The department store is meant to serve as a three-dimensional vision board. It ultimately can succeed only if it persuades you to see it in those terms.
Aspiration and Desperation
It has been a generation since any department store actually properly represented the aspirations of its shoppers. Even if you are living on the edge of poverty, when you look at the most important things you buy, you ideally want them to be better than the products you see in a department store. A department store is unlikely to carry the best products in any category, but you may find some that are “good enough, and not too expensive.” You would probably struggle to imagine a shopper who walks around a department store imagining the life they might be able to live someday. A Kmart or Macy’s shopper is more likely to be thinking, “I am so thankful I do not have to wear the clothes that they sell here.”
As recently as the 1980s, a department store represented a kind of generic upper middle class lifestyle that, not coincidentally, could also be seen in the television shows of the era. An affluent family would drive to the department in their full-size car to purchase products that reinforced their identity as being better off than most of the people in town.
By 2005, this sense of aspiration had given way to the opposite, a feeling of desperation. By then, the department store had become, more than anything else, the retailer of last resort. You went there when something didn’t have to be good, but you needed it right away or you couldn’t find it anywhere else. The illusion that a department store could sell you anything you needed had long since disappeared. It was disappointing to see how many compromises you had to make to buy a product from a rack in a department store. You would imagine the better product you knew existed somewhere else, but you settled for less for the sake of expediency.
The state of the department store has only declined in the years since. The most successful department store now is Walmart, a store that sells products of the lowest quality of any major retail chain. Walmart persists by persuading its customers that they cannot afford the prices they will pay at any other store. Where other department stores became the retailer of last resort by accident, Walmart intentionally positions itself this way. Knowing that this is its role, it regularly takes actions to undermine the confidence of its shoppers. Mimicking the dynamic of an abusive relationship, this strategy may keep customers from discovering that they have better options elsewhere.
Looking back, I would argue that the decline of the department store paved the way for the law of attraction fad. The Secret helped filled the gap that was created when department stores could no longer serve as focal points of anyone’s aspirations. If walking around JCPenney left you feeling depressed and dejected, you could cheer yourself up by making your own vision board.
The Force of Habit
If department stores have held on for another 20 years, it is mainly because of the force of habit. Shoppers who grew up going to department stores continue to do so, even if it no longer makes economic sense. Yet if law of attraction has faded from the collective consciousness, the same forces will eventually break the department store habit too.
One way to observe this is to look at how little mind share department stores hold among shoppers born after 1985. These are shoppers born too late to see the aspirational side of the department store. To them, a department store is only a retailer of last resort. It is an unhappy chore if you have to go to a department store to buy towels in the middle of the night because of some emergency — perhaps a plumbing failure has soaked the entire bathroom closet. But it is only when that emergency arises that you need to know the name of the store.
Department Store for What?
There is a larger problem with the department store that affects even its more loyal shoppers. There has been a loss of identity. No department store really stands for anything anymore. The only major exception is Sears, which for a lifetime set the standard for heavy-duty products such as appliances, tools, and batteries. But Sears is bankrupt and on its way to closing this year. There are a few luxury department stores that represent a certain sense of elite style. But no other department store really stands for anything in a positive sense.
I asked a few people to state the brand identity of any department store chain, in a sentence of the form, “Macy’s means ________” or “Target means ________.” No one had any suggestions. “I’m drawing a blank,” was the answer I got. It probably isn’t possible for a store that sells so many unrelated things to have a meaningful identity. Yet the clock is ticking, and the department stores that remain must come up with a way to develop a sense of identity strong enough that shoppers will continue to come in. Being the retailer of last resort is not enough — it will not be a profitable niche for a department store any more than it was for Radio Shack in its category.
It is the merchandising that has to change. When you go into a department store, you expect to see a hit-or-miss selection of products that are good enough to get by, but most of the time, no better than that. I think we have reached the point where a store has to specialize in something. Shoppers want to go to a store where they can find a coherent point of view on the product category they are shopping for. It is not in the nature of a department store to provide that, but now I think they must, at least somewhere in the store. Each department store has to choose a couple of categories in which it can stake the claim of being the best. The store must take the time to understand the products it has to offer in these departments. Then it needs a positive connecting theme that will remind the casual shopper what those categories are.
The only example I can think of is Bed Bath & Beyond, a store that tries to help you outfit the more distinctive rooms in your house. Bed Bath & Beyond is not considered a department store, but that is the mindset that every department store has to look at now. The question should be, what do you want your store to be known for when the idea of a department store is taken away? It is the question to ask because, in many shoppers’ minds, that transition has already taken place.
Beyond the Catalog
What is the cultural shift that killed off the law of attraction as a cultural force and is now chipping away at the department store as a concept? I believe it is the fundamental idea behind the catalog that has lost its appeal. There was a time when the mail-order catalog, the department store, or the giant web store represented the ideal of freedom. The thinking was, you could choose whatever you wanted. This assumed you had the money to do so, but there is a more fundamental objection than that. Freedom does not mean choosing from a list that someone else has put together. Freedom does not even mean choosing from among the things that already exist. Freedom, people have come to understand, means being able to choose without those other constraints being added.
It is easy to think of examples to illustrate this philosophical point. If you are in a jail cell, perhaps you have the choice to sit on the east side of the cell or the west side of the cell, but that is not what freedom means. I think of a restaurant where the menu offers your choice of lobster, shrimp, or fish. If you were obliged to eat a meal there, you could hardly say that you could eat whatever you wanted. In the high school I attended, students were obliged to study a foreign language, but there were only three languages to choose from.
The same principle applies if you scale up to the level of a department store. Perhaps you can buy a corkscrew in the store, but there is only one kind available, and it not a product you could compare to the best corkscrew you have ever seen. Someone behind the scenes has decided what products you can see in the store, and they are not making their choices the way you or any shopper would make them. Your choices are constrained not just by the limited scale of the store, but by a hidden agenda that probably runs counter to your interests as a shopper. Even the largest web store has this same problem. Selections are limited and the product names and descriptions may be intended to mislead. Being deceived and getting something you didn’t want is not what freedom is about either.
Law of attraction is not limited to the concept of a catalog, but it was presented to the world in those terms and has run into the same problems. It is all too easy to parody the manifestation culture that surrounded the law of attraction fad, but it reached its ludicrous extreme in a course that challenged students to manifest a new car.
Yes, you could pick any new car you wanted, but it is still a bizarre limitation imposed on top of the open-ended law of attraction. Why a new car? I suspect is it because the instructors knew that most students don’t know what they want. You have to tell the students what they want to get them through the exercise in manifesting. The obvious problem with that is that the students aren’t manifesting what they want. Instead, even assuming they succeed in the course, they are stuck with the new car. It is no wonder if most students gave up on the idea of manifesting after that experience.
Most people don’t really want a new car. If the car works as a mandated goal for a manifesting course, it is only because it is an idea firmly planted in our collective expectations by two lifetimes of advertising and commercial manipulation. But to a lesser degree, it is the same story with most of the things we think we want. Sometimes we think we want something just out of envy. We saw someone who got a new bike or won a race, and they looked happy. We wanted to be happy too, and we didn’t necessarily stop to ask whether we would have the same emotional reaction to the product or achievement. Sometimes we were tricked into thinking we saw a product have this effect on someone. Advertising images make us think we saw this happen, even if we never did.
When we get the things we think we want or things we were tricked into wanting, it doesn’t make us happy. There is the momentary glow of achievement, but that lasts for an hour, or maybe a day for something we were persuaded was really big. After that feeling fades, we’re left to try to figure out what we just got. Repeat this scene enough times, and eventually anyone is going to start to feel somewhat skeptical or jaded.
Waking Up From the Trance
More than a few of us are waking up to the extent of the manipulations that have been applied to us. We are waking up from a commercial trance or from some other kind of trance. If this happens suddenly, as it often does, it can bring on an existential crisis. We could say, “I have to find out who I really am and what I really want, or I will continue to be manipulated in the same way.”
Even those of us who do not reach this point have to become more skeptical as a result of the disappointments that so often follow our purchases and achievements. “How can I win at this game?” we might ask, and if the answers are not obvious, then it casts doubt on manifesting and shopping alike. The only products we are sure we really want are the ideas we saw ourselves form from our own view of the world — but then, often, we find that no one makes the products we have imagined.
The purpose of the department store is already hard to explain, and the selection of products inside is already depressingly small compared to what everyone knows is available in the world. If shoppers are waking up from the trance and looking for the freedom to choose what they want, department stores may die a natural death. We will still need a retailer of last resort but it is not clear that this will resemble a department store.
It is ironic that law of attraction and manifesting have disappeared from the cultural conversation just as we are on the verge of making good use of them, by which I mean using them to create things that do not already exist. Perhaps our decade of experience with law of attraction was just an exercise, with the real work ahead to appear in a form that we are not quite ready to imagine.