It's OK To Spend On Consumer Goods.Forget The Guilt
Throughout history humans have desired nice "stuff." If you are a discerning shopper and not simply out for conspicoous consumption, enjoy yourself. LA Times
Let's Lose the Guilt Trip; It's OK to Buy
By Michael J. Silverstein
It's that time of year again Â— time to scold Americans for wanting to buy things and to darkly warn that our souls are in peril because we, as a nation, worship at the shrine of goods.
Please. Exactly when was it that Americans cared nothing for material things? William Bradford of Plimoth Plantation fame owned a snappy red waistcoat. Thorstein Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption" in 1899.
And it's not just us. People in every society, in every era, have treasured material goods. The earliest sumptuary restrictions were enacted in ancient Greece.
Though most people are willing to acknowledge that America is a nation of consumptionists, they hate to admit it about themselves. That's because every one of us believes he or she is a smart shopper. We hunt relentlessly for the best prices on commodities.
When we splurge, we do it for a good reason and in consonance with our values. We buy premium water because we believe in its health benefits, high-end cars because they challenge our driving abilities, expensive adventure travel because we love to learn. It's all those other people who covet brand names, overspend and fall for clever marketing.
So, perhaps it's time to look more closely at the retail phenomenon and make distinctions between discerning consumption and blatant consumerism.
For example: Paying a premium for a gift of better design and function that also makes you feel good. Discerning.
Trampling fellow consumers in line at Wal-Mart. Blatant.
Paying less for a private-label product that is as good as the brand-name one. Discerning.
Maxing out multiple credit cards. Blatant.
Ignoring mediocre goods of all kinds. Discerning.
Paying extra for mediocre brand names. Blatant.
There is a new pattern of buying and consuming now emerging, and we believe it signals a society that is getting more judicious about its consumption habits. There is no longer an average consumer or typical shopper at any income level. The Mercedes driver buys private-label tomato sauce at Costco. The construction worker buys the same golf clubs as the chief executive.
Quantitative research by the Boston Consulting Group shows that the undesirable consumer behaviors, including overindulgence and overspending, are mostly found at specific times of life, such as the teenage years, or in specific situations, such as dating and post-divorce.
Goods have become a financial instrument. People trade up when they want to increase worth and trade down when they need to save money.
As a nation, we have amassed considerable credit card debt, but in 24 out of 25 middle-class households, income matches outflow each month, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Expenditure Survey. Consumers balance their budget by buying more lower-priced products to afford the trade up in one, two or three categories that are important to them.
Goods have become a social language of sophistication and nuance. Few goods are purchased as flat-out status symbols; each one carries a subtle message about its owner or user. When a mother gives her child an American Girl doll, she is telling the child, "I love you and care about your emotional and intellectual development."
In a society as complex and diverse as ours, with no homogeneity of language, goods provide an effective way to send signals and make statements. What is billionaire Warren Buffett saying when he wears a pair of $40 Gap khakis? What is a Brazilian-born housecleaner saying when she shows off her Coach purse? You probably have a ready interpretation.
It's time to accept that it is possible to care a great deal about material goods without being morally bankrupt. After all, what was the first thing Scrooge did after he had his Christmas Eve revelation? He bought the best goose money could buy.
Michael J. Silverstein, senior partner of the Boston Consulting Group, is author of "Trading Up" (Penguin, 2004).