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.

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The DeLand Bike Rally: Spectacle, Consumer Identity, Consumer Experience

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In early March, 2015, I checked out the Bike Rally in downtown DeLand (one of the kick-off events for Bike Week, most of which takes place closer to the coast in Daytona Beach and New Smyrna Beach). The rally transforms downtown and reorients local businesses. It’s a spectacle, a community event, a celebration of subculture, a family event (to an extent–the DeLand rally is way more tame than its coastal counterparts). It’s also a consumer events. Biker gear connotes biker identity. Gear shows brand identity. And gear is for sale.

Local shops cater to these guests. Signs welcome bikers at incongruous businesses like “Grrs-n-Prrs”, a pet boutique (though given that some bikers do travel with pets, this appeal might make some sense). Food and beer, biker accessories and event t-shirts are for sale. So are patches to sew on the backs of jackets, themselves both products and badges of identity–actual or ironic.

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Love For Sale, Installment Two

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More examples of food as love, love in places of food, love for sale alongside food. . . at a central Florida Publix, prominently displayed in the front of the store en route to cheese and deli. IMG_1753 IMG_1752

The text reads “love is fleeting,” which doesn’t seem like the most promising message for Valentine’s Day (especially since the champagne is fleeting as well).

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prescriptive displays–some ideas for making use of your Valentine’s Day supplies.

Your Childhood Teddy Bear Grows Up

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Apparently, the Vermont Teddy Bear company has produced a “Fifty Shades of Grey” bear for Valentine’s Day, complete with handcuffs. I thought this was a joke when I heard about it on a news show. ( I’m still not convinced it isn’t, though evidence suggests otherwise, in form of the company’s website. And if it is a joke, then multiple news outlets include The Today Show were also taken in. It would be a great hoax, for sure.)

The copy on the company’s website reads: “If you want to dominate Valentine’s Day, skip the roses and send the limited-edition Fifty Shades of Grey Bear. Inspired by the best-selling book, the adult gift is specially designed for fans obsessed with Grey, biting their lips with anticipation over the movie. He features smoldering gray eyes, a suit and satin tie, mask – even mini handcuffs.”

Only 89.99.This particular bear comes with a safety warning: “Contains small parts. Not suitable for children.” Indeed.

The 50 Shades Bear is only one of a panoply of special Valentine’s Bears. They include: “The hoodie-footie bear,” “The I-Love-You-More-Than-Bacon Bear,” and the “Zombie Bear.” These specialty bears all average around $80.

I want to write about how the Fifty Shades bear shows an interesting trajectory for the classic teddy bear–from kids’ toy/love token/ to BDSM signifier (or at least, the book’s version of that). There’s really something rather brilliant and hilarious about turning a cuddly teddy bear into a symbol of sexual domination. As irony, it works. But here, I get caught in the conundrum of questioning intent–is the bear supposed to be funny? a pricey gag gift (surely no pun intended) as Today wondered, in a typical product placement bonanza on its website listing listed multiple Fifty Shades products? Or is it just seizing an opportunity? Who will buy the bear?

This column from The Daily Beast by Melanie Berliét makes very interesting points about how BDSM has been used as an advertising tool in recent years, along with critiquing the film and book’s portrayal of the practice.  Seen in this light, the Fifty Shades Teddy Bear is certainly nothing new. But the trend that Berliet describes raises another perpetual question in popular and consumer culture–once a subversive or alternative viewpoint or lifestyle becomes commercialized, what happens to it and its perception? Does the commercialization increase knowledge and change attitudes or just dilute the meaning of the original? Though Berliét’s article–and the teddy bear–reference a specific set of sexual practices, this question exists for lots of trends in popular culture.

Thus, the universe of “Fifty Shades” themed products merits discussion, though such cross-marketing is no surprise. We’d be more surprised if a potential movie block-buster did NOT arrive with products in tow. (And of course, this movie, given its subject matter and arrival on Valentine’s Day Eve, just begs for marketing tie-ins. The marketing of the film itself–with its emphasis on romance and its promise that love is sometimes neither black or white–is also intriguing, perhaps casting the book in a softer and more romantic light for film audiences?

Also, of course, this bear is just one artifact in a universe of Valentine’s Day goods, itself worthy of another post I promise to make soon.

And now I see my own Vermont Teddy Bear (very plain, devoid of props, received as a gift to celebrate some long-ago accomplishment) in a totally different light.