It's official: Consumerism is dead, and it's been replaced with something better. We've slowed down, started prioritizing financial security over materialism, and wouldn't drive a mega-SUV or live in a McMansion if you paid us.
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If these changes sound familiar, it's because they've been a hot topic since the recession began. Two new books clarify the shift with heavy-duty consumer research. In Spend Shift, authors John Gerzema and Michael D'Antonio argue that most Americans "have subtly adjusted their lives to seek greater balance and a more fulfilling existence." They base their findings on a massive study by Young & Rubicam. In Consumed, by Andrew Benett and Ann O'Reilly, the authors use their own research at Euro RSCG Worldwide to suggest that Americans have "grown up," now preferring to focus on community over selfish pursuits, among other changes.
As products of marketing firms, both of these books are primarily concerned with what companies can and should do with this information. How can they continue to sell to consumers who no longer want to constantly buy? One answer: They join the movement. Companies and retailers who have embraced sustainability, value, and experiences over materialism appear to be the most successful in navigating the post-recession world.
A survey taken late last year by JD Power and Associates found that younger consumers in particular have been gravitating toward brands that provide value, such as Old Navy, Forever 21, and H&M. Meanwhile, pricier brands known for stylishness, such as Abercrombie and Fitch, have suffered. "This trend of 'unconsumption,' where people don't just spend less but also try to repurpose what they've already got, is here to stay," says Nita Rollins, trends expert at Resource Interactive, a brand consultancy.
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Here are five traits that define the today's consumer—and how companies can appeal to them.
Optimism. Consumers that Gerzema and D'Antonio classify as "spend shifters"—55 percent of Americans, based on their research—are optimistic and resilient. They still believe in opportunity and good things to come. That means they don't want to go overboard with second-hand shopping or "radical frugality;" instead, they simply seek value for their money
Brand consciousness. While the new consumer isn't chasing the ever-changing retail trends, they're often drawn to brands known for providing value. That's partly because they have so many choices, and it's hard to know what to trust. So if they're presented with the option of spending a little more for a brand that they know they'll like, they'll probably do that.
Authenticity-seekers. Benett and O'Reilly point to the "slow food" movement, where people strive to enjoy their meals instead of rushing through them, along with the related "slow travel" movement. The relatively new concepts of "voluntourism" and "staycations" suggest " a desire for a more ethical and sustainable approach to consumption—and life," the authors write.
Purpose-driven. "There is a pervasive sense that consumerism needs to be tempered by a thoughtful awareness of its negative social and personal implications," say Benett and O'Reilly. That's why people want to focus on simpler pleasures, such as homemade soup and lazy afternoons, instead of marathon shopping sprees that lead to clutter and constant feeling of wanting more. The authors point to books and blogs and urge people to simplify their lives. Their own research found that most respondents enjoyed cutting back and decluttering their homes.