Consumer Retreat Writ Large

I’ve been chatting about consumer retreat away from materialism for some time now. Some pundits see it as collateral damage from the poor economy.

At the holidays, it’s especially good for people to have a noble purpose if they’re not in a position to consume. But it’s worth considering that this shift in consumer attitudes is not so much about making a virtue of necessity as it is a restructuring of values. People are looking for meaning and not finding it in shopping. That phenomenon was set in motion well before the collapse of financial markets.

Shopping started to feel empty when the greater costs of cheap goods became known–from sweat shops to fuel to high-fructose additives. When having a pantry over flowing with bulk purchases from warehouses like Sam’s Club resulted in obese children. When everybody could suddenly afford a mansion-like home. Conspicuous consumption becomes inconspicuous when everyone has the same stuff. Online shopping removed us from the human connection we enjoy at retail. We’ve all had that experience of receiving such remarkable good service that it became part of our personal lore.

I recall a frigid day in February when the parking garage near Marshall Field’s would not read any of my credit cards. With my car held hostage, I trundeled up to the Marshall Field’s Customer Service window and explained my dilemma to a woman who had the bearing of a Field’s veteran: polite, albeit a little stern, well-dressed, and helpful. I asked if she would cash a check so that I could get out of the parking lot. She disappeared into a back room. In a few minutes she returned with cash. “Hold out your hand,” she said. She peeled off $25 dollars. I reached for my checkbook. ” No, no.” She waved me away. “It’s freezing cold, Madam. Mr. Field would not want one of his customers trapped in this weather.” I will never forget it and tell that story to anyone who will listen.
So we are embarking on an exciting time, when a new set of values must emerge. I look forward to a year of tracking them as they do. For now I am counting the joy of small blessings.