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.

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So Much More Than a Farm Stand

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I returned to one of my favorite places recently, Wilson’s Farm in Lexington Massachusetts. I remember going there as a child, when it really was more of a farm stand than the gourmet fresh food shopping experience it is today. It’s not quite a grocery store, but it’s way more than a farmstand. In season, products are local, but throughout the year (not unlike major grocery chains) Wilson’s sells produce from all over the world. But the store also has a homegrown, homemade vibe—selling prepared foods and baked goods from its own kitchen, often using recipes Lynne Wilson compiled into The Wilson Farm Country Cookbook in 1985.

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Wilson’s is expensive—not surprising, given its location in a comfortable Boston suburb and its emphasis on local, organic, homemade goods. It is an aesthetic experience, from the arching wood ceilings to the cornucopia of fruits and vegetables in glowing colors. It is a sensory experience.

It is also an educational experience. On my most recent visit, I noticed all the signage intended to teach customers about the food. A note about “our tuna” describes different types of the fish, where it comes from, what it’s good for. Another card describes how swordfish is a “conservation success story.” The signs are hand-written, adding to the homey quality, suggesting we’ve just stepped into someone’s kitchen. With the fish, we can get a dose of knowledge and leave feeling assured we have both chosen good fish and contributed to environmental sustainability. Sustainability, here, is both a worthy cause and a marketing tool, honestly expressing the orientation of this gourmet farmstead and also tapping into contemporary food values.

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The store also trades on authenticity. It is one-of-a-kind (not a chain, though with another seasonal location at its New Hampshire farms). It has a long history (back to 1884) with roots in an Irish immigrant family who started out trekking into Boston with their farm goods. IMG_1989

But above all, Wilson’s is a shopping experience.*  Possibly if one goes there regularly, the sensory extravaganza begins to seem the norm. But the occasional visitor is entranced by the coherent aesthetic, the mix of rustic signage and design with product sophistication, and the appeal to taste and sight and smell.Even the imagination awakes.

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*When I’m thinking about a “shopping experience,” I’m thinking about all the writers who talk about the rise of American consumerism as spectacle and experience, dating back to the late nineteenth century. See Gary Cross, An All-Consuming Century, James Farrell, One Nation Under Goods, William Leach, Land of Desire, to mention just a few.

Keeping up with the seasons: Easter products.**IMG_1992

Branding, sustainability, and souvenirs: Wilson’s shopping bags for sale. IMG_1993

**Authors including Gary Cross and Jack Santino (New Old-Fashioned Ways) have described how consumer culture intersects with seasonal events and how the products that arrive in stores herald the coming of a holiday or start of a new season.

Are Pets Consumers?

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IMG_1685Today I was in Pet Smart, shopping for some cat-related goods. The whole existence of Pet Smart is amazing in itself—the plethora of products, brands, and highly styled goods for pets who themselves could not care less about brands and styles. It goes without saying that most pet products are really about us and not them.

For a while, I’ve been meaning to read this book about America’s pet obsession—Michael Schaffer, One Nation Under Dog—which looks very interesting even though it marginalizes cats by focusing on dogs (as do so many smaller pet stores, BTW, the proliferation of internet cat videos notwithstanding). But I digress.

The consumerization of pet ownership (stewardship)? is writ large in the big box pet style.

Most intriguing to me on my recent trip were displays that presented pets’ needs as parallel to human needs (and culturally created human needs), thus justifying the branded goods the store was marketing to us.

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To whit: a display of toys exhorting shoppers to “support an active lifestyle.” Do pets have a “lifestyle?” Isn’t that an inherently human—and brand-driven—concept? not to mention, of course, that most of these toys, though perhaps momentarily appealing to a pet, serve needs just as well met by the errant aluminum foil ball, packaging material, ipod wire, amazon box, or other random household good.
Having made that observation, I went ahead and purchased a new hanging sisal scratch toy for my interior garage door. With catnip pocket.

Also important: Having your pet be fashion forward. Martha Stewart obliges with a line of dog clothes.

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And don’t forget Valentine’s Day—for your prized non-human companion or for the pet-lover in your life.

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H & M Goes Socially Responsible

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IMG_1644So fascinating how corporations have adopted the rhetoric of social responsibility as a branding tool. Here, we see this strategy at work with H & M, in a central Florida mall. References to Spidey are always fun, of course. We can all enjoy the pun. But more interesting here is the notion that fashion CAN be socially responsible. H & M attempts–in a slick and aesthetically pleasing way–to set itself up as a warrior in the battle against sweatshop labor. This ad is part of the company’s attempt to reinvent both its image and (it claims) its labor policies in the wake of the horrific factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. The ad catches one’s eye. It caught mine, anyhow. Who knew H & M was socially conscious? As the retailer might hope, I went online to learn more. “H & M Conscious” is the company’s campaign to make a “fashion future” that both “looks good and does good.”

Indeed, some news reports also state the company has made an effort to get more control over production processes and improve working conditions in the factories that make its clothes  (companies like H & M use middleman factories, so efforts to control labor and safety are directed at putting pressure on those factories and creating standards they must adhere to).

However, even as the media has reported H & M’s commitment to these changes, reporters have noted what the company leaves out. And some progressive journalists are skeptical.
An optimistic view might say, this ad assemblage in the H & M storefront shows progress. Sweatshops are pretty much a household concept nowadays. The anti-sweatshop movement of the1990s gained enough success that corporations have responded to it. The cynic might say, stop! What’s really happened is corporations have co-opted this movement and neutralized it. Can social responsibility remain such when it is also an advertising tool? Can a “living wage” be both an activist goal AND a marketing tool and retain any of its core meaning?

Of course, the anti-sweatshop campaign with its focus on fair wages and safe , humane treatment is not the only example of corporate co-optation of activist language. The same process has happened with the green campaign, the red campaign, and more. The cynic might argue that using the words is just a strategy.

And the cynical historian might point out this process has characterized consumer culture throughout the 20th century. Particularly notably, Thomas Frank brilliantly points out in The Conquest of Cool how advertisers in the 1960s adopted the iconography, slogans, and themes of the countercultural movement. Once rebellion became an advertising tool, actual rebellion had to find a new voice.

Meanwhile, H & M has made “sustainability” part of its web address to promote its socially conscious theme.

I didn’t even get to gender dynamics here: perhaps the irony is obvious. H & M uses beautiful models to promote social responsibility, thus, of course, implicitly reproducing the usual standards of beauty that shape gender norms and objectify women. Moreover the beautiful, groomed, apparently happy, safe, and well-to-do women of the advertisements stand in explicit contrast to the laborers across the globe who make H & M’s clothes (and which its “conscious” campaign purports to help.)

Sheltering from the Storm. . .

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With Whole Foods?

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This billboard at Whole Foods (Winter Park) cracked me up. Really, is WFM where you’d go to buy your hurricane preparedness items? There just might be cheaper sites for bottled water and dry food. But for WFM, a brilliant strategy to get in on that disaster preparedness consumer action.

(Interesting, in itself, that preparing for a crisis is also a consumer event.)

Waiting on a Phone. . .

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IMG_1267The line outside the Apple Store at the Altamonte Mall, Day 2 of the i phone 6. No further comment necessary, really. . .

Except to say, why so important to be first? There’s something worth some reflection. It’s not as though Apple were GIVING AWAY iphones at the end of the line.

You can read about the first-day fanaticism here. . .

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/business/os-iphone-6-goes-on-sale-20140919-story.html

I say, Life’s too Short.

Trader Joe’s Aesthetic of Social Consciousness

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IMG_1232Trader Joe in Winter Park reassures its shoppers that it “pays it forward.” With its trademark typeface, TJ manages to be both cute and socially conscious at the same time. Strategically located outside the bathrooms, this sign reassures consumers that the store is socially conscious. Indeed, a social conscience is part of the store’s brand. Values and ethics are part of what’s for sale (which is certainly better than not having values and ethics at all).