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.

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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.

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.

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.)

Organic Groceries with a Helping of Irony

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Here are some shots of the Whole Foods Market in Haight-Ashbury, on Haight Street right across from Golden Gate Park.

This decor is a great example of how consumer culture–retailers, advertisers, and the like–co-opt progressive movements to serve consumer ends. So here, we have the (somewhat) progressive, organic, chi-chi, and trendy Whole Foods Market (see Michael Pollan’s commentary on WFM for an explanation of the “somewhat”)embracing a kitschified hippie aesthetic. Note the flower power on the walls and dangling from the chandelier, along with the artsy “Peace Out” sign. The obvious irony here (perhaps so obvious I shouldn’t bother stating it) is that hippie, commune culture was really about the opposite of bougie-WFM consumerism.

See Thomas Frank’s great book, The Conquest of Cool, for how advertisers back in the 1960s themselves co-opted the discourse and imagery of the hippie movement to sell their products. Clearly, the same strategy is at work today.

Opened in 2011, this particular WFM was built partly from recycled materials.