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Posts Tagged ‘consumption

“They said I was a valued customer, now they send me hate mail”*…

Is shopping therapy… or an occasion for therapy?…

… Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, videos of irate anti-maskers screaming, throwing things, and assaulting employees at big-box and grocery stores have become a social-media mainstay. As Americans return en masse to more types of in-person commerce, the situation only seems to be declining. At its most violent extreme, workers have been hospitalized or killed. Eight Trader Joe’s employees were injured in one such attack in New York, and in Georgia, a grocery-store cashier was shot over a mask dispute. Far more frequent are the accounts of short-fused shoppers becoming verbally abusive or otherwise degrading over slow service or sold-out goods. Earlier this month, a restaurant on Cape Cod reportedly was so overwhelmed with rude customers that it shut down for a “day of kindness.

America’s ultra-tense political climate, together with the accumulated personal and economic traumas of the pandemic, have helped spur this animosity, which was already intense and common in the United States. But it’s hardly the only reason that much of the country has decided to take out its pandemic frustrations on the customer-service desk. For generations, American shoppers have been trained to be nightmares. The pandemic has shown just how desperately the consumer class clings to the feeling of being served.

The experience of buying a new television or a double cheeseburger in a store has gotten worse in your lifetime. It’s gotten worse for the people selling TVs and burgers too. The most immediate culprit is decades of cost-cutting; by increasing surveillance and pressure on workers during shifts, reducing their hours and benefits, and not replacing those who quit, executives can shine up a business’s balance sheet in a hurry. Sometimes, you can see these shifts happening in real time, as with pandemic-era QR-code-ordering in restaurants, which allows them to reduce staff—and which is likely to stick around. Wages and resources dwindle, and more expensive and experienced workers get replaced with fewer and more poorly trained new hires. When customers can’t find anyone to help them or have to wait too long in line, they take it out on whichever overburdened employee they eventually hunt down.

This dynamic is exacerbated by the fact that the United States has more service workers than ever before, doing more types of labor, spread thin across the economy—Uber drivers; day-care workers; hair stylists; call-center operators; DoorDash “dashers”; Instacart shoppers; home health aides; Amazon’s fleet of delivery people, with your cases of toilet paper and new pajamas in the trunk of their own car. In 2019, one in five American workers was employed in retail, food service, or hospitality; even more are now engaged in service work of some kind.

For people currently alive and shopping in America, this economic arrangement is so all-encompassing that it can feel like the natural order of things. But customer service as a concept is an invention of the past 150 years. At the dawn of the second Industrial Revolution, most people grew or made much of what they used themselves; the rest came from general stores or peddlers. But as the production of food and material goods centralized and rapidly expanded, commerce reached a scale that the country’s existing stores were ill-equipped to handle, according to the historian Susan Strasser, the author of Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. Manufacturers needed ways to distribute their newly enormous outputs and educate the public on the wonder of all their novel options. Americans, in short, had to be taught how to shop.

In this void grew department stores, the very first of which appeared in the United States in the 1820s. The model proliferated in cities as the 20th century neared and industrial manufacturing expanded. By consolidating sales under corporate auspices in much the same way that factories consolidated production, businesses such as Wanamaker’s, Macy’s, and Marshall Field’s hinted at the astonishing ways American life would change over the next century. But consolidation also created a public-image issue, argues the historian William Leach in Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. Corporate power wasn’t especially popular in fin de siècle America, where strike-breaking industrial barons taught those without wealth to mistrust the ownership class. People were suspicious of new types of big business and protective of the small dry-goods stores run by members of their communities.

Department-store magnates alleviated these concerns by linking department stores to the public good. Retailers started inserting themselves into these communities as much as possible, Leach writes, turning their enormous stores into domains of urban civic life. They hosted free concerts and theatrical performances, offered free child care, displayed fine art, and housed restaurants, tearooms, Turkish baths, medical and dental services, banks, and post offices. They made splashy contributions to local charities and put on holiday parades and fireworks shows. This created the impression that patronizing their stores wouldn’t just be a practical transaction or an individual pleasure, but an act of benevolence toward the orderly society those stores supported.

With these goals in mind, Leach writes, customer service was born. For retailers’ tactics to be successful, consumers—or guests, as department stores of the era took to calling them—needed to feel appreciated and rewarded for their community-minded shopping sprees. So stores marshaled an army of workers: From 1870 to 1910, the number of service workers in the United States quintupled. It’s from this morass that “The customer is always right” emerged as the essential precept of American consumerism—service workers weren’t there just to ring up orders, as store clerks had done in the past. Instead, they were there to fuss and fawn, to bolster egos, to reassure wavering buyers, to make dreams come true. If a complaint arose, it was to be resolved quickly and with sincere apologies.

The efforts that Leach identified among turn-of-the-century department-store owners to paint their businesses as the true sites of popular democracy have been successful beyond what they probably could have imagined at the time. Most Americans now expect corporations to take a stand on contentious social and political issues; in return, corporations have even co-opted some of the language of actual politics, encouraging consumers to “vote with their dollars” for the companies that market themselves on the values closest to their own.

For Americans in a socially isolating culture, living under an all but broken political system, the consumer realm is the place where many people can most consistently feel as though they are asserting their agency. Most people in the United States don’t exactly have a plethora of opportunities to develop meaningful identities outside their economic station: Creative or athletic pursuits are generally cut off when people enter the workforce, fewer people attend religious services than in generations past, and loneliness and alienation are widespread. Americans work long hours, and many of those with disposable income earn it through what the anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”—the kind of empty spreadsheet-and-conference-call labor whose lack of real purpose and meaning, Graeber theorizes, is an ambient psychological stressor on the people performing it. What these jobs do provide, though, is income, the use of which can feel sort of like an identity.

This is not a feature of a healthy society. Even before the pandemic pushed things to further extremes, the primacy of consumer identity made customer-service interactions particularly conflagratory…

American Shoppers Are a Nightmare“– and as Amanda Mull (@amandamull) explains, customers were nearly this awful long before the pandemic.

* Sophie Kinsella, Confessions of a Shopaholic

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As we reconsider commerce, we might recall that it was on this date in 1939 that The Wizard of Oz premiered at the Strand Theater in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin– one of four Midwestern test screenings in advance of the Hollywood premier at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (on August 15).

Considered one the greats in the American film canon, it was of course based on the work of L. Frank Baum… who, before he created Dorothy and her adventures, was a retail pioneer. An accomplished window dresser (the equivalent at the turn of the 20th century of television commercial director), he founded and edited a magazine called The Show Window, later known as the Merchants Record and Show Window, which focused on store window displays, retail strategies, and visual merchandising; it’s still being published, now as VMSD.

Back Camera

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“Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production”*…

Television fueled the second stage of modern consumer culture, “democratizing” luxury on a scale previously unimagined

The notion of human beings as consumers first took shape before World War I, but became commonplace in America in the 1920s. Consumption is now frequently seen as our principal role in the world.

People, of course, have always “consumed” the necessities of life — food, shelter, clothing — and have always had to work to get them or have others work for them, but there was little economic motive for increased consumption among the mass of people before the 20th century.

Quite the reverse: Frugality and thrift were more appropriate to situations where survival rations were not guaranteed. Attempts to promote new fashions, harness the “propulsive power of envy,” and boost sales multiplied in Britain in the late 18th century. Here began the “slow unleashing of the acquisitive instincts,” write historians Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J.H. Plumb in their influential book on the commercialization of 18th-century England, when the pursuit of opulence and display first extended beyond the very rich.

But, while poorer people might have acquired a very few useful household items — a skillet, perhaps, or an iron pot — the sumptuous clothing, furniture, and pottery of the era were still confined to a very small population. In late 19th-century Britain a variety of foods became accessible to the average person, who would previously have lived on bread and potatoes — consumption beyond mere subsistence. This improvement in food variety did not extend durable items to the mass of people, however. The proliferating shops and department stores of that period served only a restricted population of urban middle-class people in Europe, but the display of tempting products in shops in daily public view was greatly extended — and display was a key element in the fostering of fashion and envy.

Although the period after World War II is often identified as the beginning of the immense eruption of consumption across the industrialized world, the historian William Leach locates its roots in the United States around the turn of the century.

In the United States, existing shops were rapidly extended through the 1890s, mail-order shopping surged, and the new century saw massive multistory department stores covering millions of acres of selling space. Retailing was already passing decisively from small shopkeepers to corporate giants who had access to investment bankers and drew on assembly-line production of commodities, powered by fossil fuels; the traditional objective of making products for their self-evident usefulness was displaced by the goal of profit and the need for a machinery of enticement.

“The cardinal features of this culture were acquisition and consumption as the means of achieving happiness; the cult of the new; the democratization of desire; and money value as the predominant measure of all value in society,” Leach writes in his 1993 book “Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture.” Significantly, it was individual desire that was democratized, rather than wealth or political and economic power…

From Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays (and his pioneering of modern propaganda and advertising), through Alfred P. Sloan and General Motors (and the proliferation of choice), David Sarnoff and radio (then television), and now the internet– over the course of the 20th century, capitalism preserved its momentum by molding the ordinary person into a consumer with an unquenchable thirst for more stuff: “A Brief History of Consumer Culture.”

[Your correspondent highly recommends Land of Desire, and as a video “chaser,” Adam Curtis’ remarkable Century of Self (on YouTube here).]

* Adan Smith, The Wealth of Nations

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As we consume consciously, we might spare a thought for Thomas Crapper; he died on this date in 1910.  Crapper popularized the one-piece pedestal flushing toilet that still bears his name in many parts of the English-speaking world.

The flushing toilet was invented by John Harrington in 1596; Joseph Bramah patented the first practical water closet in England in 1778; then in 1852, George Jennings received a patent for the flush-out toilet.  Crapper’s  contribution was promotional (though he did develop some important related inventions, such as the ballcock): in a time when bathroom fixtures were barely mentionable, Crapper, who was trained as a plumber, set himself up as a “sanitary engineer”; he heavily promoted “sanitary” plumbing and pioneered the concept of the bathroom fittings showroom.  His efforts were hugely successful; he scored a series of Royal Warrants (providing lavatories for Prince, then King Edward, and for George V) and enjoyed huge commercial success. To this day, manhole covers with Crapper’s company’s name on them in Westminster Abbey are among London’s minor tourist attractions.

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“I’d ask, ‘Is this dish good enough to come downtown and wait in line for’ If not, it’s not what we’re after”*…

 

eggs

 

We’re in the middle of a global crisis of extraordinary proportions. This is a memo we started writing months ago. It was meant to be a sort of elegy to the economic and cultural cycle in which we were living, which was clearly coming to an end – the experience economy in particular. However, that cycle came to a rapid conclusion before we managed to hit publish. We’re publishing it now, knowing things are likely to get far worse in the coming days, making the reality during which it was conceived feel increasingly distant. Nonetheless, we hope it will be entertaining to you during quarantine….

We believe that umami has been both literally and figuratively the key commodity of the experience economy. Umami, as both a quality and effect of an experience, popped up primarily in settings that were on the verge of disintegration, and hinged on physical pilgrimages to evanescent meccas.

We also believe that the experience economy is dying, its key commodity (umami) has changed status, and nobody knows what’s coming next.

What do we mean by umami? Not only the meatiness of the French dip sandwich at that restaurant, but also the light as it refracted through the amber liquid of the cocktails, the reflection off the back bar, the quivering of the cake, and, most significantly, the way those elements read in a photo. Umami was the quality of the media mix or the moodboard that granted it cohesion-despite-heterogeneity…

Umami could have been anywhere, but we smacked our lips in the moment. It was liquid in the sense that it flowed from place to place, airy in the sense that it was ungrounded, and earthy in the sense that it might have been in your mouth.

“Advanced consumers” became obsessed with umami and then ran around trying to collect ever-more-intensifying experiences of it. Things were getting more and more delicious, more and more expensive, and all the while, more and more immaterial.

Umami is what you got when you didn’t get anything…

The recent historically long market expansion began with the recovery from the 2008 global financial crisis – and its inevitable end seems to have arrived via virus. Your impression of these high times might vary. You might remember the period for austerity, the Arab Spring, Trump, Brexit, Yellow Vests, the rise of the far right, rising costs of housing and health care, the student debt bubble, youth unemployment, and to top it all off, an accelerating climate crisis. But if you worked in finance, received tech compensation or VC money, or just happened to be rich in the first place, you’ve had a pretty sweet decade.

But now, amidst market turmoil and a public health crisis which much of the world – in particular the US – is fully unequipped to handle, it’s a flaming question mark whether any real growth occurred during this period, or if the high times were merely a fantasy created mainly by capital injections (or “money printing”) from central banks in the US, China, and Europe. What was actually happening was the enrichment of financial assets over the creation of any ‘real wealth’ along with corresponding illusions of progress.

As very little of this newly minted money has been invested into building new productive capacity, infrastructure, or actually new things, money has just been sloshing around in a frothy cesspool – from WeWork to Juicero to ill-advised real estate Ponzi to DTC insanity, creating a global everything-bubble.

With interest rates approaching zero, or even going negative, it simply means capital is having difficulties finding profitable places in which to invest itself. Or, to phrase it differently, those in charge of capitalist societies were failing to see worthwhile futures in which to invest. The market expansion of the past 12 years has felt like a very inappropriately timed self-congratulatory party, situated at the end of a much longer period of stagnation and decadence.

Value, in an economic sense, is theoretically created by new things based on new ideas. But when the material basis for these new things is missing or actively deteriorating and profits must be made, what is there to be done? Retreat to the immaterial and work with what already exists: meaning.

Meaning is always readily available to be repeated, remixed, and/or cannibalized in service of creating the sensation of the new.

How has this manifested? For example, by calling things that were actually old → new; mediocre → premium; bad → good; low value → high value etc. This was Premium Mediocrity. Or by taking existing meanings and mixing them into increasingly novel, bizarre and random combinations and calling them new. This was creative direction. Or by putting people into proximity with newly created meaning of dubious status, and selling it as an experience. This was festival season.

The essential mechanics are simple: it’s stating there’s a there-there when there isn’t one. And directing attention to a new “there” before anyone notices they were staring at a void. It’s the logic of gentrification, not only of the city, but also the self, culture and civilization itself.

What’s made us so gullible, and this whole process possible, was an inexhaustible appetite for umami…

Cultural umami is the vague sense that yes, for some reason, it is. ““This shouldn’t be good but it is” “this doesn’t seem like what it’s supposed to be” “I shouldn’t be here but i am” “this could be anywhere but it’s here” If you tried to unpack your intuition, the absence of the there-there would quickly become evident.

Yet in practice this didn’t matter, because few people were able to reach this kind of deep self-interrogation. The cycle was simply too fast. There was never time for these concoctions to congeal into actual new things (e.g. create the general category of K-Pop patrons for Central European arts institutions). We can’t be sure if they ever meant anything beyond seeming yummy at the time.

Let’s take an example. The luxury sector, fashion in particular, has increasingly become a key theater for umami. Throughout the history of human civilization, luxury was premised on being expensive, meaning it resulted from investing an unreasonable amount of work, material or other scarce resources into the making of a thing.

But today’s rich don’t generally wear the 2020 version of royal purple, something like parametrically fitted garments made of nanofibers embellished with synthetic mother of pearl (which might be the results of real growth). Instead, they wear $500 cotton t-shirts with inscrutable references and visual motifs pulled from a smörgås-moodboard that makes little “sense” in any generalizable way. The t-shirt’s price clearly isn’t a function of its material makeup, but rather a result of some form of manipulation of meaning associated with it. But because meaning (or its substrate information) is infinite, it can only become a luxury once it carries the illusion of scarcity.

Meanings that only a few have access to are secrets. In the absence of meaning, the illusion of a secret is created by imposing a subcultural barrier to entry where only through an opaque process of scene work can one ‘get’ it (or, if you’re unlucky: if you gotta ask you’ll never know…). Alternatively, they are wrapped in the veil of an elusive X-factor, to which only a privileged few, i.e. the creative director, have direct access.

The key referent of luxury brands used to be one thing they made really well at great cost. But today they have gentrified themselves by discarding any fixed material basis: the only referent that does any work is the price, and the wealth associated with it.

By combining the traditional symbols of wealth with a pool of meaning that was made to seem scarce but was in fact infinite, brands created the umami equivalent of free energy. Everyone wanted money and everyone wanted umami. And there was more money around than ever before. What could go wrong?…

Excerpts from a fascinating essay by Emily Segal (forecaster, writer, and former principal at the pioneering K-Hole) and Martti Kalliala (architect, musician, and designer), the partners in Nemesis; do read it in full: “The Umami Theory of Value: Autopsy of the Experience Economy.”

* chef David Chang (Momofuku, et al.) in his 2016 essay on umami

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As we contemplate consumption, we might recall that it was on this date in 2005 that police descended on a Clovis, NM middle school after a report of a concealed weapon (a student carrying something “long and wrapped” onto the premises).  The force posted armed shooters on nearby roof-tops and cordoned off the classrooms.

The lock-down was lifted when an eighth-grader realized that he was likely the source of alarm.  He approached the principal and explained that he was carrying a 30-inch, foil wrapped burrito, part of an extra-credit assignment to create commercial advertising. “We had to make up a product and it could have been anything. I made up a restaurant that specialized in oddly large burritos.”

20060827-School_huge_burrito_weapon_1 source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 28, 2020 at 1:01 am

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