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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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.

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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