Like an army of soldier ants

August 27, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

As regular readers know, I gave up The Brands in early 2008. I wouldn’t say I was hooked on The Brands but I did think that owning say a Louis Vuitton handbag was a better status symbol than owning a No Brand handbag. Researching on topics and writing about them on the ThinkingShift blog caused me to have a hissy fit and say “enough”. Enough of lusting after The Brands and spending exorbitant amounts. Enough of lusting after objects that are most likely made with the heavily-worked hands of poor little children in some humid Asian sweat shop. I’ve been doing okay. I bought a handbag for winter in a shop in Lane Cove – made in Italy but not a brand name. I just sourced my summer wardrobe – I’ll be rehashing many pieces from last year in line with being more frugal but I’ll add a few bits I’ve bought from St Vinnies to freshen things up.

And it seems that consumers aren’t far behind me. A recent article suggests that shoppers are giving the finger to The Brands by shifting their loyalty to retailers, particularly retailers who offer shoppers an experience of some sort. There’s a cheese shop in Seattle where shoppers can watch the cheese being made, reinforcing the message that it’s local and artisanal. The staff are knowledgeable about cheeses and cheese making and answer customer questions. The experience is enhanced by the offering of cheese related products such as cheese boards and crackers. So the shopper walks out feeling they have learnt something, enjoyed watching cheese being made and can go home with some funky products. Sure would beat the experience I had the other day in a major supermarket – Me: what type of cheese is that? Person serving: dunno, do ya wanna try it? Apparently, shoppers can even go to the cheese factory in Oregon from which the retailer sources its cheese and buy cheese there at half the price.

I’ve come to view retailing in the 21st century as a very, very bland experience. All shopping centres look alike with the same cookie-cutter chain stores and supermarkets. You practically have to kill someone to get a parking space (at least with my local shopping centre) and when you’re inside, it’s hustle, bustle, chaos. You’re told if it’s not on the shelf or on the rack – too bad, we ‘aint got that item. I rarely find those serving behind counters friendly and I hurry to leave as I find it quite stressful. Retailers need to get into the game of re-imagining and ask themselves “how can we do this better? how can we give our shoppers a great time and maybe provide them with some knowledge?”. As a kid, I remember to this day, how the local sweet shop showed me how to make coconut ice (those were the days when sweet shops had home-made delicacies). My father (once he retired) had a chocolate shop and I worked there as a Uni student – I knocked up batches of coconut ice and white chocolate Aussie animals to sell and had a great time talking to the customers about recipes and gathering their ideas on how to improve.

But I digress: another article I found was also very interesting. It suggests that over the last 30 years, we have morphed into “turbo consumers” and that we consume to buy identity and status. I love this part of the article: “Many people recoil at being told that, like me, they live their life like glorified soldier ants in an army whose purpose is to reproduce a social system over which they have no say. They genuinely feel they follow no fashion and live a free life. But in the immortal words of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “if you’re so anti-fashion – why not wear flares?….Shopping is the predominant way in which we know ourselves and each other, and it is at the point of ruling out other ways of being, knowing and living.”

And because we have largely lost the art of entertaining ourselves – through family conversations over the dinner table, playing cards, making our own stuff – we rely on retail therapy and other paid-for experiences. I was telling a great friend the other day a bit about my childhood: at night times after school it was filled with listening to music and seeing my parents dancing together (they were great at twirling the floor); or I would quietly read or listen to my own music. Weekends were filled with extended family gatherings, knitting or crocheting things. There weren’t the mega shopping malls to go to anyway.

We are in the grip of a bland, increasingly global monoculture. Read the article and reflect on this bit – because it should scare the bejesus out of us:

“Totalitarianism, a society where alternatives are ruled out, was meant to arrive in the jackboots of the communist left or the fascist right. It now arrives with a smile on its face as it seduces us into yet another purchase. The jackboots are in this season’s colour and style. We are watched, recorded and ordered not by our political beliefs but by our shopping desires. The gulag is replaced by Gucci.”

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