The Turn Towards Tangibility Tatyana Mamut

To have and to hold in an economic downturn

As dollars turn scarce, people face new and increasingly difficult choices. The indulgent luxury experiences that thrive in a growing economy now seem too ephemeral. To most of us, this downturn somehow feels more serious than past recessions, and therefore demands a more serious response.

“Disposable” and “momentary” are out. “Buy and hold” is the name of the game. Instead of the Starbucks mini-escape, we see a return to the humble coffee maker. Instead of a massage, it’s a good salt scrub. People desire tangibility as a way to create comfort and stability in a volatile economy, where all the news is bad news.

The Evidence — Stories from around the globe

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Dollars into durables

Currency crisis is not a new experience in Russia. Because of this, Russians have learned to adjust their habits to the reality that the economy is fragile, and that money can simply disappear into thin air. During the economic boom in the mid-2000s, Moscow’s Experience Economy took off. Restaurants, cafes, and spas were packed with people. Today, those same restaurants sit empty as discount stores pull in the crowds.

Alisa is a 36-year-old marketing executive in Moscow. Five years ago, she saved her money in US dollars. Three years ago she diversified to euros. And a year ago, she opened a third bank account in rubles. After seeing the wild swings in currency rates, Alisa finally decided to turn her intangible currencies into tangible goods by going shopping. And she’s not alone. On the news, the stories are all of people buying, buying, buying as fast as possible. Instead of a coffee at the new café down the street, she buys a lipstick at the drugstore–or she might buy three or four. After all, what if the Russian government defaults again? What if America defaults? For a citizen of a country in perpetual crisis, the conversion of abstract money into real things is a comfort.

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Get what you give

Tom used to donate money to good causes like Greenpeace, Planned Parenthood, and Red Cross, but a few months ago he discovered the BoGo (Buy One/Give One) flashlight from SunNight Solar. He bought one of these solar-powered flashlights and in turn, one was donated to a non-governmental organization in Africa. The flashlight sent to him is now displayed in his living room, while he imagines its exact replica in someone’s hut in a small African village. It’s a concrete manifestation of Tom’s act of charity, and a material reminder of the small things he is doing to change the world.

As a new form of philanthropy, the “Buy One, Give One” phenomenon has stolen the hearts and wallets of many philanthropists, as well as those who have never donated money to overseas causes before. Instead of the money disappearing into an organization, people know exactly what they are giving because they get it too. It’s a win-win with tangible consequences.

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Stocking up on layaway

Laura calls herself the “Layaway Queen of Dallas.” She’s getting ahead by cutting back, and cutting up her credit cards. She knows it’s smarter to buy in cash than to pay revolving debt for years on a credit card. But she feels buying everything with cash is just too difficult, so she has turned to layaway.

At Kmart she piles her shopping cart to the brim with all the things she knows her kids want for Christmas. For just a $5 set-up fee, the store sets the items aside and allows Laura to pay in installments. By spreading the purchase out, she has time to consider whether she really wants the item. Once she pays something off, it’s hers. If she changes her mind, she gets her money back. With layaway, the money she’s putting toward the items feels real. It’s not just a swipe of plastic where amounts float in the air until she gets a statement, which she usually can’t pay in full anyway.

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Haircuts to hairclips

For the past few years, Felicity has gotten her hair cut every three months at a cost of $75 plus tip. This year she needed rein in her spending, but wouldn’t dare go to a cheaper, unknown stylist. Instead, she decided to cut back to only two salon trips a year, resulting in a $180 savings. But after four months, Felicity could barely stand her appearance. Instead of caving in, she enlisted a friend to go shopping with her at a beauty supply store where she bought a couple of $8 clips. Now she has a variety of new hairstyles at a fraction of the price.

A mini-Christmas story

For the Gordy family, exchanging Christmas gifts is a sacred tradition. But over the last ten years, they admit it has gotten out of control. So this year they established some rules to rein in what they now refer to as “the craziness” of Christmases past. They set a $50 per person limit, with a preference for handmade gifts that have a $50 value, but cost much less to make. Thrift is the name of the game for what’s under the Christmas tree, while the family’s stockings are filled with stories of savvy preholiday sales.

Smell the quality

For Temujin, a cosmopolitan professional from Mongolia, the highlight of her trip to Northern California was the Premium Outlet Mall in Gilroy. She had heard about great deals on brand names like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren from several of her colleagues and had set aside $300 for shopping. She even created a list of items to keep her focused on what she really wanted to buy, including a high-end pair of shoes. At every store, she smelled and felt the shoes that caught her eye. Was it real leather? How long would they last? Would they look good six months from now, a year from now, how about in two years? The final decision was made based less on brand name and more on quality, which she could smell by the scent of the leather itself.

Discussion

Moses Ting

October 6, 2009

Having helped a few friends create their own debt repayment program, I’m most interested in figuring out how to apply action #2 towards credit card spending habits.

Credit cards are actually a great thing, if you used them in a disciplined manner.  Your spending is automatically tracked and most major card companies provide free spending reports.  Which are vital at the end of the month or the year if one wishes to accurately analyze spending habits & history.

It’s not credit cards that get people in debt, it’s the lack of discipline in spending.  How might we better education or communicate the perils of overspending with plastic?

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CharlieH

October 6, 2009

Moses - One place to look for answers is other programs that help people help themselves improve their discipline around a habit, like Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, AA, or maybe best practices in education in general.

Goalspring is a startup I came across that’s building tools and education to help people manage their debt, using the weight programs as a model.
See http://www.goalspring.com/

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lillian

August 10, 2010

Regarding haircuts to hairclips my daughter who lives in Manhattan does the same thing.  She comes home to Indiana a couple times a year and has her hair done at that time thus avoiding the high cost of NYC. I don’t know and would be willing to try if this would work for us seniors.  Something about gray hair can’t be masked with clips.  Enjoyed your blog very much.

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AngelaO

August 28, 2010

I believe the turn towards tangibility is related to how many advertisers are turning to more experiential and tactile marketing versions of “online” or virtual experiences.  Although this is probably a separate pattern - one where we try to reconnect with real-time, real-life relationships (with people or objects), similar to the slow food movement.
Cases I pointed out in a blog post I made were: Diesel’s Facepark; a local revival of the ubiquitous “autograph book” (how students in our country shared personal details in the era before social networking sites); and ideas like the “Urban Cursor” and “ID Snapshot Makeover”.

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Kannan

November 10, 2010

I think one the rule should be to impose hefty fines and make it very difficult for the consumer to get another card and not allow more transactions on the card which is defaulted. it’s similar to a speeding ticket process.

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