The most pressing question facing our consumer society and economy is the one we keep asking each other: What’s going to happen? David Ogilvy famously told his clients, “The consumer is your wife,” and, while editing it a bit for changes in the workplace and culture, his dictum still holds: “The consumer is you. The consumer is me. The consumer is the person down the street. The consumer is us.” And we, the consumers, are unsure of what will happen next and how we’re going to react to THAT next worrisome thing that heads our way.
This stutter in the economy enables us to consider afresh the laws of supply and demand. This much is clear: We’re about to have an inescapable reality check.
Take Three Tenses
It is our blurring of what has been, is, and will be happening that actually reveals a tale of two pandemics. The first pandemic, a slow-moving erosion of the retail landscape, hollowing out malls, stores and brands rather like an infestation of termites we didn’t quite realize were already gnawing away at the consumer infrastructure until it wobbled and then collapsed. Its demise was brought on more quickly by the advent of the second pandemic, Covid-19. The second is not unlike a high-speed train of contagion colliding with the stalled sidecar of retail, abandoned and stranded on the tracks.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold
We all know the reasons for the retail apocalypse we’ve seen looming on the horizon for decades:
- The financial rot and mindless expansion of stores
- The radical consolidations of once distinct brands for manufacturing efficiencies
- The race to the bottom as one generation of marketers addicted three new generations of consumers to the heroin of price promotion
- The erosion of service and knowledge at every point of human contact
- The rise of the convenience economy
To that toxic mix, we now must add an emerging awareness that, as a huge percentage of us are out of work, filing for unemployment and waiting in lines at the food bank, conspicuous consumption isn’t, shall we say, an aspiration to be aspirational about.
This stutter in the economy enables us to consider afresh the laws of supply and demand. This much is clear: We’re about to have an inescapable reality check. There is the sudden awareness of a pervasive oversupply of the typical apparel wares of conventional retail. It’s all sitting there now awaiting a fairytale coming to life not unlike Sleeping Beauty in the 100-year-old forest. We collectively imagine the inventory glut in various warehouses and manufacturing plants around the globe. Contrast that with an unimaginably repressed demand. Once we’ve spent two months in exercise clothes, sprucing up only for our Zoom calls from the waist up, what more are we really going to want? We are experiencing a nostalgic desire for comfort food at grocery. I predict that desire will be met by an equivalent yearning for comfort clothes instead of power suits. But wait a minute, we already have them.
Some consumer categories may retain relevance after the lockdown. We’re thinking of those which require connoisseurship and the need for genuine education as a proof point to support continued respect for a well-trained and knowledgeable sales staff. Fine wines, spirits, art and jewelry come to mind. Any object of desire that brings with it expert knowledge verging on erudition; we collect these objects not consumer them as a mark of aesthetic investment.
Nowhere to Go
But now into the mix comes Covid-19 with its attendant fear and trepidation to leave home and go where? Simon Properties issued its guidelines for mall reopening and it doesn’t sound like any cause for celebration and ribbon cutting. Rather, returning to the mall will be more like a new gauntlet for consumers to have to run. Security guards, already serving as the dogs at the gate to defend the retail overlords from our relentless desire to steal from them, will now work as hall monitors, reminding us not to shop close to friends, nor remove our masks and gloves. Every other urinal, stall and faucet will be taped off to ensure “safe” distances. Food courts will be partitioned for minimum occupancy. An Orwellian voice will intone from loudspeakers, again reminding us of our responsibilities to stay away from each other. We’ll be assisted by sales staff at six-foot intervals. Anu why are we putting ourselves at risk? In pursuit of another pair of jeans and tee-shirt? I think not.
A Wonderful Life
Of course, beyond the radical downshift in consumer demand, there’s an even larger philosophical force at play: our own vulnerability, our own – dare we mention it – mortality. I believe that this self-awareness for most of us outweighs the transitory joys of shopping. We have all had plenty of self-reflective time to evaluate our lives, jobs, purpose. There’s a collective admiration for the bravery of certain jobs which until now we’d never have thought of as “first responders.” We have newfound respect not only for our healthcare workers, but for all the front-line cashiers at our supermarkets and the mobility and fleet drivers who deliver our food at their own peril.
A Pandemic Poll
We decided to ask a few hundred of our nearest and dearest colleagues what they think about what comes next. We asked five quick questions to gauge the impact of all these disparate forces on our consumer society at this remarkable juncture in human development. Take a look and compare what your responses might be.
1. First Activity After Self-Quarantine
2. Lessons Learned from Lockdown
3. I’m Putting Off…
4. What I Thought About
5. I’ve Thought More About
Now, of course, these aren’t the typical questions you’d expect on a survey. It’s more of a snapshot in time taken of dozens of marketers, strategists and visionaries being asked about their own consumer behaviors. The questions are designed simply to gauge two aspects of the current culture as we move into The New Reality. First, what role does anticipation of shopping play in our musings of what is coming? (Answer: None whatsoever.) Second, are we undergoing a sea-change in our worldview, or is this moment simply a blip on our consumption radar? (Answer: a Mach 1 to Mach 2 jet propelled shift, from which there is no turning back.) As I review the results, I see a world with a rapidly diminishing sense of meaning derived from the pure acquisition of stuff, coupled with a renewed sense of the importance of people and relationships. Perhaps, it augers to a time where the two-decade old mandate of the power of forging “brand experiences” will now mutate into the primacy of human relationships, conducted person-to-purchase in smaller, well-curated and knowledgably staffed emporia.
What we believe emerges from our informal research is a more conscious capitalist environment. We’ve suddenly begun to come to grips with not knowing the near future. We are living in the present worried about the supply chain, all the commercial food going to waste, the meat-packing workers sickened in droves, the nursing home residents and attendants dying in isolation, the environmental impact of laissez-faire manufacturing processes, the close quartered housing of prisoners and sailors, the daily challenges faced by poorly-compensated teachers, the daily heroism of nurses and emergency workers, the emotional toll of death without mourning rituals and the true cost of sweat-shop labor. The list goes on. Will we turn a blind eye again? Will we return to our former habits? It becomes increasingly difficult to imagine we can.
A line from The Grande Chartreuse by Victorian poet Matthew Arnold in 1855 often comes to mind these days: “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born, with nowhere yet to rest my head, like these, on earth I wait forlorn.” He may have meant it about the world during his time, but as a message of all great literature, the meaning is vital today.