Froma Harrop: What’s happening? We used to shop ’til we dropped

Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop

In 1916, Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia sponsored a children’s parade with heralds, a brass band, Jack the Giant Killer, clowns, girls as snowflakes, boys as silver stars and Santa Claus transported by four Eskimos to his throne in the Royal Red Theater — every morning it was open during the Christmas season. You don’t get that on Facebook.

Nowadays, despite the lack of spectacle, much shopping is moving online. The purchases there are more targeted. People going into the stores, meanwhile, are observed honoring strict shopping lists. Impulse buying seems on the way out.

Certainly, some of this frugality is a hangover from the economic trauma of six years ago. The recession smashed Americans’ comfort with debt, belief in real estate and faith in an ever-more prosperous future. Many feel the sting of stagnant wages. Even winners in this strengthening economy seem to be holding back.

But a more fundamental change may be afoot, a change in belief systems. Americans may be moving into an era of post-materialism. If so, retailing faces a whole different ballgame.

Post-materialism is defined as a reorientation of values away from the big-ticket luxuries, such as fancy cars, and toward self-expression and quality of life. It could mean choosing more free time over working longer to support a big home.

This trend is strongest in rich countries, where the basics of food, shelter and security are taken for granted. The World Values Survey shows Australia having the highest proportion of post-materialists, 35 percent, followed by Austria, Canada, Italy and then the United States, at 25 percent.

Less time spent shopping combined with tighter consumption could prove problematic for traditional stores. They thrive on shoppers buying things they didn’t come for.

The formula, especially in the busy holiday season, is to lure customers in the door with a few super-bargains (the loss leaders). The expectation is that the shoppers will hang around to buy additional items at the usual marked-up prices. But today, stores say, consumers are doing hit-and-run raids, snagging the cheapo deals while ignoring the shiny things thrown in their path.

Another retailing tactic is to put the necessities that draw folks to the store in hard-to-reach places. Even groceries know to put fun things between you and the milk. But food shoppers, too, are reportedly heading like laser beams to items on their lists and ignoring all else.

Before going on, let’s put in a good word for consumption. The lust to amass stuff associated with the Good Life is not entirely bad. It fuels the economy, and if budgets aren’t broken in the process, a splurge now and then can at least temporarily raise the spirits — doubly so when done in the company of other merrymakers.

Sadly, many of today’s shopping experiences do not raise the spirits. Picking up a cheaply made import at a big-box store on a drab strip is not quite the same thing as shopping for toys on a festive Main Street. Surely, the sameness of mall shopping has driven many a consumer online, where prices are transparent, the selection broad and traffic is zero.

But we must again ask: To what extent is the new thrift driven not by immediate economic concerns but by profound changes in values? We see evidence of the latter in the minimalist hipster ethic of smaller, urban living and less dependence on cars. It’s in the angst of champion consumers for whom “decluttering” has become a religion.

Americans used to shop till they dropped. Now they’ve stopped. If growing post-materialist attitudes are behind these developments, a lot of economic bets will be off.


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