Come to the Table: Shopping for Easter

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Easter! a time to buy chocolate, stuffed rabbits, hide eggs, and refresh your spring china collection. (Oh wait, that’s not the origin of Easter? It’s not originally a consumer holiday? Right.) One could be forgiven for imaging the origins of Easter lie solidly in bunnies and baskets.

Easter window displays at a shop in Asheville, NC.

Consumer culture marks holidays and signals seasonality, as Jack Santino describes so well in his work on holidays (New Old-Fashioned Ways: Holidays and Popular Culture ).

And so we know  Easter is coming when weird yellow marshmallow bunnies and Cadbury eggs arrive at the grocery store, and when home goods stores redesign their displays for the coming holiday.

Pier One (“Hoptown” Easter display)

 

This spring, so far before Easter that I wasn’t even sure what date the holiday was this year, I wandered by a Pier One and stopped short, called in by the  fantastical appeal of the Easter decor. Quirky rabbits, bright colors, matching china and decorative but pretty objects with no purpose (e.g.fake bird nests and wreaths with eggs) create a festival of Easter experience  all about the look and the stuff.

 

Just being in the store is an experience in itself; a few steps in, the Easter aesthetic subsumed me and I felt, as I was supposed to feel, lured, comforted, attracted to and compelled by the artful displays with their suggestion of order, conviviality, comfort, and pleasure. Browsing these displays is akin to a vicarious Easter celebration, and too much time spent here is an overdose that nearly negates the need for the holiday itself or its attendant products (an effect that undermines the store’s intentions!). If only they served food, the vicarious holiday would be complete.

The table settings were the most engrossing feature of this holiday cornucopia. Like other such stores (Pottery Barn offers similarly intricate Easter table displays), Pier One models the Easter table to its customers. Here, the store says, is how to have a holiday and how to set a table. These tables invite viewers (potential consumers) into an imagined dinner, encouraging us to envision our own experiences made better, made special—indeed, created at all—through  this aesthetic.

These displays follow in a long tradition of hostess how-tos. Even before 1869, when the Beecher sisters published An American Woman’s Home , housekeeping was never morally neutral (the good housewife, to Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, was also the one who maintained a moral Christian home).

The Easter table is about many things: food, community, perhaps faith, family, friends, and tradition. The table is never free of meaning, and the table aesthetic at Pier One helps convey these meanings. Some of the meanings are about money: the store’s Easter tables assume a certain income. If you can buy it, you, too, live this Easter dream (or maybe just a few place settings of it).

The store carries on the fantasy on its website, expanding the “hop town” theme and welcoming us virtually to this imagined space.

Real or virtual, the holiday table at Pier One offers a recipe for success and a prescription for how to produce the ideal holiday. And the way to produce that is to consume an interrelated family of products  that promise us the same kinds of emotional synergies and cohesive, bright holidays for ourselves.

*(In closing, I will disclose that though I managed to leave without any Easter paraphernalia,  I did spontaneously buy new wine glasses.  Pier One’s strategy worked.Once I was in, I went from looker to buyer. )

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Masculinity Underground

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Spotted in a Toronto subway station: These billboards for Harry Rosen, the elite Canadian men’s clothing store. I was intrigued by the no-holds-barred equation of masculinity, sexuality, physicality, money, and ownership. Also, these men “own” the “night” and the “weekend,” not traditional work times, but of course, presumably these hours extend (and are made possible by) their “ownership” of the daytime. This ad also reflects constantly shifting norms for male beauty, including a multi-racial man and a man with heavily tattooed arms who appears a model of business suave—his arm decoration enhancing rather than detracting from the power and success he represents. These men suggest progress in representations of ideal masculinity but yet of course, maintain the norm that it is beauty—however defined—that means success. And though different men may step on to this stage, they play the same parts when it comes to notions of masculine power. Harry Rosen’s models may be objectified, as targets of a gaze, but, they “own” their surroundings in traditional masculine style.

Covering Up Women’s Health at the Check-out Rack

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Publix, my (generally wonderful-other-than-their-refusal-to-support-the-CIW) regional grocery chain, saw fit to conceal this recent TIME Magazine cover on the rack, in the traditional manner of hiding pornography (I uncovered it to take the photo). As you can see, this issue—with the cover story discussing women’s changing approaches to breast cancer—was adjacent to Shape,  also concealed, presumably due to the scantily clad model on its cover (who was herself adjacent to a headline screaming “Shrink Your Belly!”).thumb_IMG_2832_1024 [At least, I’m guessing it was the model’s barely covered breasts that earned the Shape cover-up, and not the general offensiveness of reproducing tired and destructive messages about the female body and the need to make it ever-smaller. ]

Certainly, it’s intriguing that TIME chose a naked and conventionally slender female torso to make its point about a woman’s wrenching choice when it comes to investigating her propensity for breast cancer. On the other hand, the magazine is clearly depicting a woman doing a self-exam—not a sexual act—and yet the store has  relegated it to the status of quasi-pornography on the check-out rack. (This juxtaposition seems particularly evocative when we also consider the widely socially accepted sexualized discourse around breast cancer—the “save the tatas” movement.)

Surrounding these two magazines—one actually about women’s health, the other about marketing women’s bodies and sexuality—both covered in the manner of pornography—are other magazines promoting multiple varieties of American consumerism and intersecting it with gender, in the home, in the bedroom, in the mall. These messages, of course, gain no such censure.

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Consumers in Training

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These mini-shopping carts at Trader Joe are for “customers in training.” And children zoom happily around the store propelling these pint-sized carts, designed just for them. A book I use for my Consumer Culture class talks about this phenomenon of learning to shop: James J.  Farrell’s One Nation Under Goods. Farrell does  a great job describing how children learn to shop–from being socialized into a consumer world before they’re even aware of it, to learning how to navigate a store and ask for what they want. These carts fit right in. I was amused by how shameless this process is here at Trader Joe–there’s no question that training children to be customers is a desirable end goal and no effort to hide the fact that even a specialized shop like TJ is competing for future loyalists. And of course, the carts also serve the end of keeping children busy while the parents/caregivers get their own shopping done. Genius move. Next time, I’ll have to watch to see  what the little shoppers are putting in the carts and whether their selections actually make into the shopping bags at the end of the trip.

Where are We Now? Balancing Homogeneity and Distinction

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Consumer spaces often  balance awkwardly between homogeneity and distinctiveness.  There’s a kind of overwhelming sameness to American consumerism–similar chains, products, experiences, aesthetics– (even if sometimes this sameness can be reassuring in its predictability–part of what made hotel chains so successful in the first place).  Even places that promise distinction are often different in similar ways. Think about a road trip–you get off the highway and you encounter the usual suspects–hotel chains, grocery chains, gas station chains, fast food and higher-end fast food depending on the place you’ve stopped. The higher-end places are grouped together. You can read the consumer landscape based on what chains you see. But some of these interchangeable locales make some nod to place–acknowledging that though they might look like any other Hampton Inn, McDonald’s, etc., they are actually located in a specific town, state, or highway interchange. The difference might be in a color scheme, a mural, brochures, a welcome sign. So customers can feel at once reassured by the promise of reliability but also be reminded they are somewhere specific with its own history, identity, and local culture.

I’ve seen these local adaptations at eateries and grocery stores from McDonald’s to Panera to, as you see here, Trader Joe’s. This Trader Joe’s is in Athens, Georgia, making customers feel at home with its murals of UGA and other Athens landmarks and its support for the Bulldogs. Other TJ’s appeal to the their own local histories.

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Somewhat paradoxically,  these homogenous consumer spaces contribute to shaping a sense of place. They also tap into the deep American desire for community. Local events advertised on a bulletin board at Starbucks make people feel even more like they’re in a “third place,” connected to other people, to a place, to a sense of identity. The same chain shopping experiences that can undermine this sense of connection endeavor to reproduce it.

The High-End Pet

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I took this photo on Newbury Street in Boston back in June. I loved this store window, which made made me wonder what makes a pet “modern” and what constitutes “essentials.” The shop is Fish & Bone. I liked the quirky humor.IMG_2187

Unfortunately, I did not take time to browse that particular “pet boutique,” so I can’t take this visual analysis to the next level. I did learn that this shop was ranked 1 of 15 for Boston’s “Best Pet Boutique” on Boston’s A-List.

The notion of a “pet boutique,” has, of course, become commonplace. Indeed, it seems every town—not to mention major cities and chi-chi shopping districts—must have one. On many American “Main Streets,” a pet boutique is a must, not unlike an ice cream parlor or a donut shop.
Even in DeLand, Florida, far from the tony allure of Newbury Street, we have “Grrs-n-Purrs.” In New Smyrna Beach, on Flagler Avenue, Silly Willy’s Pet Boutique. A pet boutique has become part of the vision of an American “Main Street,” not unlike an ice cream parlor or a donut shop.

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Is the urge to consume high-end, boutiquey items for pets similar to the urge to consume high-end goods for babies? Baby-product buyers can feel good buying the products and can fulfill some aesthetic fantasy about baby-hood, child-hood, or pet-hood. Or perhaps with pets (and children?), trendy goods are a way of incorporating pets and children without disrupting the household aesthetic. Or perhaps even actually complementing that aesthetic. Or perhaps it’s just plain fun (though that answer begs the question of why). *

I’ve bought nice toys for my cats on a number of occasions. They play with them. But they also play with boxes that come in the mail, paper towel rolls, and my i-pod headphones. So, are the toys more for me or for them?

And what about the elaborate cat furniture for sale in various web venues—cat-centered Craftsman style furniture,
hand-crafted cat walkways that blend with a household’s decor?
Though I don’t know how many people actually invest in these products, their very existence—and our fascination with them, judging by social media proliferation—is a window into the intersection of our emotions, our pets, and consumerism. What kind of fantasy do we fulfill by looking at this furniture, imagining it in our house (or, for some, by actually purchasing these goods?). The larger fantasies here must have to do with imagined visions of ideal household spaces.

Certainly, and importantly, the names, shop windows, and very existence of pet boutiques inscribe a quirky humor into the consumer landscape. But that doesn’t make them any less consumerist. We might grin at the shop window and even (in my case) mock our own decision to purchase the $8 catnip toy. But we’re still buying. We’re still converting wants into needs and needs into wants.

* [Perhaps Michael Schaffer’s book, One Nation Under Dog: America’s Love Affair with our Dogs, will shed some light on this—a book I’ve meant to read for a while despite its dog-centeredness!). (This book “inspired” but has a wider scope than the recent HBO film that treats some of the darker aspects of dog ownership—and abandonment— in the U. S. ) ]

The South in a Koozie and Other Thoughts on Selling Regional Identity

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This spring, I visited Greenville, South Carolina, a great little town in the north west corner of the state. I went for a conference, but Greenville turned out to be a perfect case study for everything I’ve been thinking about— connections between place and history, between history and consumerism, and how consumerism shapes—and is shaped by—regional identity. My trip to Greenville came in the middle of a semester teaching my course on Southern History & Culture(s), in which we talk a lot about different ways of thinking about the U. S. South. We focus on issues of place and historical memory—we read essays from W. Fitzhugh Brundage’s great edited collection Where These Memories Grow —and we also talk some about how tourism, marketing, and consumerism have helped define the South (this semester we read selections from Tara McPherson’s Reconstructing Dixie, Anthony Stanonis’ edited collection Dixie Emporium , along with K. Stephen Prince’s Stories of the South , all books that have influenced how I think about these things).

So I had lots of ideas about Southern identity running through my head as I walked the streets of Greenville in the hours I was allowed out of the windowless conference chambers.

Greenville is an interesting mix—a revitalized, thriving small city that’s making the most of its history to attract residents and tourists, benefitting from the presence of nearby universities, a growing corporate presence, an arts scene, and a downtown that’s twice won the Great American Main Street Award.

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The downtown looks modern and nostalgic at once with brick-lined streets, nicely re-vamped historic buildings, artsy streetlights and foliage, statues and plaques commemorating people and events important to the city.

Lots to think about there in terms of marketing place.

But to move on to the koozies: I also found this intriguing store in Greenville: Southern Fried Cotton, http://southernfriedcotton.com (has another location in Clemson).

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The name is evocative, as no doubt intended—a seemingly incongruous blend of a classic Southern cooking style with a major symbol of the historical South.* Who would fry cotton and eat it? No one, probably, but that’s the point— a distinctive name that also thus implies the distinction of the products and perhaps of Southernness itself (more on this later).

The Southern Fried Cotton website promises “all things southern in all your favorite colors.” (The website is worth a visit—the imagery on the front page is striking, melding romance—a hallmark of any standard representation of the Old South, enticing flora and fauna, symbols of American pride—for Independence day—and old-style script that conjures bygone times.)

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So how can you buy the South in this shop? These photos help tell the story: Southern Fried Cotton is “inspired by southern style” and here, that “style” is wrapped up in images of the outdoors, objects that reference individualism and self-reliance (re-purposed bullets made into earrings), images of sweet and presumably loyal dogs.

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What I found most interesting (though not surprising) was the way gender norms inflected these products and this version of Southern “style.” These t-shirts and hats and decorative plaques offer more than a set of ideas about the South; they supply prescriptions for gender roles that tap into some very old ideas about (white) southern identity. So a “Southern Lady” is “someone who … has a pitcher of sweet tea at the ready-always writes a thank you note-knows pearls match everything—grows her own tomatoes and bakes pies for her neighbors….” and a “southern gentleman” can follow these “rules:” “always open doors for ladies. . . be kind. . . stay humble. . . cherish southern food. . . respect your elders. . . wear bow-ties, khakis. . .” And he can buy a “man-candle.” IMG_2017

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So these products reiterate boundaries for appropriate gendered behavior, boundaries around which conceptions of southern identity were built in the pre-Civil War era.  These lines are softer now; the consumerized (and popular culture-zed version of southern womanhood celebrates the active, steel magnolia southern woman); the gentleman memorialized on the t-shirt lacks the rigid, violent component of southern “honor.”

These sentiments echo in similar shops, on similar websites, and on myriad such products in the world of the consumerized South.

They are souvenirs, not of any particular South or part of the South but of a consumerized concept of the South. This consumer South lacks historical specificity and lacks, even, the specificity of a particular historical place.

Thus in Greenville, you can buy a piece of “Southern Fried cotton” that proclaims (or asserts, or borrows) a southern identity, but there’s nothing there to remind you that you got it in Greenville, South Carolina, a South that is different from Greenville, NC or Greenville, FL or Greenville, LA or Greenville, GA. And so, in the end, there’s really nothing distinctive inside the distinction of the fried cotton. Once the cotton is fried, the product is generic.

*and not surprisingly, the images of cotton are fluffy and nostalgic, devoid of the circumstances of production under first the plantation slavery system and then in the rigors of the post-Civil War textile industry. I don’t expect a t-shirt or drink koozie http://southernfriedcotton.com/collections/koozies/products/sofrico-navy-koozie to offer a history lesson, but it’s worth noting that such imagery is one small piece of the processes—in consumerism, in tourism—in popular culture that disassociate the nostalgic images of the Southern past from the gritty realities of that history (and its connection to equally grittier realities in the larger American history). (Tara McPherson makes great points about this type of nostalgia in Reconstructing Dixie.)

And yeah, I bought a couple of koozies.