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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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.