Eat Pray Love Shop Die
Is the culture of consumerism officially dead, or is it just taking a well-earned nap? In the red corner you have your, well let’s just call them Social Consciences, who’ve argued all along that consumerism is ultimately unsustainable, debasing and hollow.
And in the blue corner, your have your Purveyors of Stuff You Probably Don’t Really Need (does that include us? Some of the time, yes) who’d argue that consumer culture is borne out of deep human needs and desires, and is a natural progression of our endless quest to better ourselves.
Eat Pray Love vs the Apple Store. So, who’s going to end up winning?
It’s clear right now that in most developed economies, sentiment has shifted. How could it not, when three-quarters of Europe is stuffed, the United States is effectively broke, and the only thing holding it all together is the expanding middle-classes of China and India.
Seeing Greece teetering on default is one thing. Witnessing the once-mighty USA, torch-bearer for the consumerist movement, being forced to go cap-in-hand to its own citizens… humiliatingly admitting that it can’t actually afford to live the lifestyle it has long seen as its birthright. Well, that’s a shift of seismic proportions.
If the States can’t actually afford to live like this any more, how can the rest of us? Of course, by most rational measures Australia continues to do remarkably well, and consumer sentiment in our market shouldn’t be anywhere near as shaky as elsewhere.
But the first thing I learned studying economics at Uni (to be honest, it was also probably the only thing… I wasn’t the most committed of students) was that economics was an attempt to rationalise the irrational. Purchasing behaviour, like all human behaviour, is almost entirely emotional.
So it doesn’t matter how the numbers stack up. If people feel like they should cut back, they will. And right now, people undoubtedly feel like they should cut back. Simplify. Make do. Save. Think about tomorrow rather than just buying for today. This attitude represents the new consumer.
And boy, hasn’t it taken a while for some people to catch on? It might just be me, but in this new climate of ‘buy only what you can afford to buy’ doesn’t Harvey Norman’s continued use of the “36 Months Interest Free!!! Get It Now, Pay Later!!!” seem incredibly out of place?
It’s like a time-machine back to those long forgotten days when debt didn’t seem to worry people. Now, debt (in all its forms) is informing much of our attitude towards our purchasing behaviour.
Of course, challenging times usually serve a purpose: they smoke out businesses that haven’t evolved. Everyone does well in good times, but only the best operators thrive when the economy is flatlining or worse.
And I think that’s, more so than simple price levers, why Australian consumers are gravitating towards overseas online retailers. Sure, the prices are great. But what internet shopping has really done is allow consumers to cherry-pick from the best retailers on the planet, wherever they happen to be. We’ve never had that luxury before. But now we have a choice: buy from the store down the road, or go online and find the best store in the world in that category.
The current climate of uncertainty and restraint doesn’t mean we stop spending, or even spend that much less. It simply means that we desperately feel the need to be in control of our expenditure.
And when you shop online, YOU feel in control. You’re driving the bus. And that, more than anything, is why traditional retail is doing it hard and needs to catch up. In a hurry.