The 18th century was the beginning of the consumer revolution, where “shopping went from being primarily a matter of obtaining the necessities of life, to a pleasurable leisure activity in its own right, associated with sociability, sensory experience, the fashioning of selfhood and the expression of individual and collective identities.”1 Think of community-building. Whether online or in-store, using real people or artificial intelligence, consumers are purchasing from retailers who build communities and speak to them one-on-one. Panjo specializes in an “enthusiast marketplace” targeting passionate hobbyists who are ultra-niched; Poshmark turns wardrobing into brand building with virtual parties and consumer stylists; Houzz claims to have begun four million remodeling conversations.
Then there are the tradesmen. Folks who produce items by hand for sale – makers before the Makers Movement, retailers before Etsy. Consider that socks had to be hand woven from thread made by hand, containers were woven or of wood, bricks did not come from a home supply store and horse shoes were practical rather than decorative. In our society, tradesmen and skilled workers are in short supply, yet high in demand.2 We’ve needed tools such as Angie’s List and HomeAdvisor to get work done around the house. Student loan debt is now the second highest consumer debt category – behind only mortgage debt – and higher than both credit cards and auto loans.3 The average student in the Class of 2016 has $37,172 in student loan debt. Annual tuition alone at an Ivy League school will set you back $40,000 – $47,000. Opportunity, coupled with lack of options, is igniting a renaissance of skilled workers and tradespeople. New opportunities for old traditions.
Today’s definition of value has dramatically shifted. It used to be that a luxury brand, such as Chanel or Louis Vuitton, signified best-in-class investment pieces and individual status. Now many designers are canceling fashion shows to accommodate immediate gratification, and the millennials view success as unencumbered freedom. They would rather spend on experience than product. No matter the category, we have a super-saturated marketplace with brands at every price point delivered on demand. Digital natives learn of new products from watching unboxing videos on YouTube. The second-hand market is thriving while classic boomer brands are going out of business. While there is a basic level of quality that is assumed, without involving a sensory experience, an item’s intrinsic value is unknown until possessed. And how many consumers can really tell the difference between regular and ring-spun cotton? Do they care? Value is not currently defined as quality, but by personalized, customized shopping experiences conducted at their convenience and preferred method of discovery and acquisition. Just as that custom garment, wig, or trunk was back then.
While many proclaim that Amazon is taking over the world, there is, in fact, the counter trend of specialty retail coupled with the blend of bricks and clicks. Not only do we have fake news, we have fake authenticity, most recently illustrated by PRPS’s muddy $425 jeans. Still, the merchant who knows you by name is credible. Today’s version uses artificial intelligence to allow retailers not only to know your name but also anticipate your needs. Just like the 18th-century shopkeeper. A visit to a store was about community as much as acquisition. And while Americans claim they prefer American-made, they balk at the price of American labor and resulting price tag. However, merchandise made by hand is trustworthy. Watching it be produced in front of you is an incredible experience that perfectly demonstrates its quality.
The 18th-century has never been more relevant – for retail in this century is certainly reflective of the one in which our country was founded. Bespoke is back.