Shop with your head, not your heart

The plan was to devote the first half of the story to what I called the “sell side”: the retailers, marketers and consumer researchers who have their sights trained on us. The second half would be about us, the “buy side.” I would explore all that attracts us — bees to nectar– to specific stores and products, why some of us are cheapskates and others have holes in our pockets.

Then, a not-so-funny thing happened. Between the time I started my reporting and the time I handed in my finished manuscript, both the sell and the buy sides had cratered. Home prices crashed. Credit markets collapsed. The government tried feverishly to glue broken banks back together. Unemployment went up and up and up.

The result: consumer spending — as in that which drives 70 percent of the U.S. economy — was running on fumes. Department store sales sank by double-digits. “The golden age of spending for the American consumer has ended and a new age of thrift likely has begun,” said a Wall Street analyst. “Sixty percent off is the new black,” quipped a magazine fashion writer.

Gone, seemingly overnight, were the throngs of buyers from Europe and Asia who had been dragging their wheelies down Fifth Avenue in New York, loading up on shoes and handbags and leaving us American shoppers feeling, even then, like poor country cousins. Word spread that we were now living in “the Wal-Mart moment,” which was likely to be rather drawn out. Our longstanding fetish for bigger, faster, flashier, pricier was no more.

With the most hyped shopping day on the calendar — Black Friday! — upon us, we all might take a deep breath and focus, not just on where to find the best door-busters, but on more important questions: What is going on out there? In the buying and selling universe, are we witnessing a permanent change in values? Have we all turned forever frugal?

The fact is, nobody’s quite sure right now. Over the past several months, there have been small signs of recovery. Consumer confidence surveys offer a glimmer of hope.

On the “sell side” retailers are viewing the 2009 holiday selling season with slightly more optimism than when they put in their holiday purchase orders six months ago.

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