American Consequences - December 2017


What really forces the spirit of the season, recall, is something undying. The social pressure to buy things this time of year for our friends, family, and acquaintances holds over from the week-long Roman festival of Saturnalia . Townsfolk gave gifts, slaves ran free – if temporarily – and everyone drank too much. We still indulge in the old traditions, but modern convenience removes the requirement to leave the house first. No longer having to fight through the yuletide crowds or to wait in endless checkout lines listening to pop stars’ trite nouveau standards and pretending not to enjoy them – can we know it’s Christmastime at all? Underhill recently gave a lecture at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where designers and merchants in training brace for an uncertain retail economy. His topic was the changing nature of gift-giving, and he gave students the difficult news – “We have a generation of gift givers who understand that what sends the right message may be something consumable, or a gift card, or an experience.” Underhill knows his stuff: Restaurant gift cards did indeed top the list of holiday gifts bought by 18- to 24-year-olds this year, according to the tally-takers at the National Retail Federation . North America and Western Europe’s most reliable spenders of discretionary income, high-earners over the age of 55, don’t go in for material objects like their parents did. The Baby Boomer, coming home in the end to the soupy idealism of her anti-consumerist youth, would sooner shell out for an expensive, enriching “experience” – like one of 2018’s

Trading currency for material goods is now, more often than not, an asocial exchange. Online sales have topped in-person traffic during retail’s reliable blockbuster Black Friday weekend for years. The gap widened again this year, when 7 million more shoppers clicked to confirm purchases than put on pants and drove to the mall, according to the National Retail Federation . The first workday after Thanksgiving, known as Cyber Monday, saw more than 81 million consumers logging in and checking out – 63% of whom browsed from their mobile phones. Even in the weird year that brought us the brick-and-mortar Amazon bookstore, our old shopping habits have only faded further. Toys R Us, its stores famously swarmed by rabid parents during the Tickle Me Elmo riots of ‘96 , finally filed for bankruptcy in September . The discount department store Kohl’s now hosts return kiosks for Amazon purchases , in the vain hope that shoppers lured by the one competitive convenience of a physical plant will remember their lost fondness for the person-to-person transaction. Macy’s, meanwhile, may be following in the funereal footsteps of Sears and Kmart . “They’re 20th-century relics,” says Paco Underhill, retail anthropologist and author of the late-’90s marketing bible Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping and, more recently, What Women Want: The Science of Female Shopping . For failing to adapt to the demands of a market that now officially lives more online than off, “These stores,” he tells me, “deserve to die.”

40 | December 2017

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