Gregory Dennis: Affluenza and opening the American mind

American retailers have a problem.
It used to be that retail stores could buy their merchandise, then “pile it high and watch it fly” out of the store.
Now, in what some analysts think is a sea change in consumer behavior, Americans have begun buying fewer things. Instead, we’re spending more of our money on experiences.
The New York Times business section recently reported that while sales on dining, homes, travel and vehicles are up, spending in large department stores is flat or declining.
In breathless “we spot the trends first” style, the paper reported: “Analysts say a wider shift is afoot in the mind of the American consumer, spurred by the popularity of a growing body of scientific studies that appear to show that experiences, not objects, bring the most happiness. The Internet is bursting with the ‘Buy Experiences, Not Things’ type of stories that could give retailing executives nightmares.”
In a conclusion ripped not from today’s headlines but yesterday’s Bible, analyst Richard E. Jaffe somberly told the paper, “The religion of consumption has proven to be unfulfilling.”
Apparently we still believe we can buy happiness. Just in experiences, not things. Here’s hoping we’re right.
For today’s much-coveted Millennial consumers, one firm concluded, “It’s becoming more and more about the experience — whether it’s going to a festival or sharing a car ride or going to a new city.”
(And would someone please remind me because I’ve lost track: Are Millennials Generation X, Y, or Z?)
In further proof that the 1 percent are still riding high, upper-end stores like Nordstrom’s haven’t yet felt the heat. Nordie’s is doing just fine, thank you.
But the shift in consumer behavior is hitting hard at mainstream merchandisers like Kohl’s and Macy’s.
They’ve responded by launching discount outlets. There are now four Macy’s Backstage stores in New York. Saks Fifth Avenue has its Off 5th stores, and Kohl’s is piloting an off-price store called Off-Aisle by Kohl’s.
Apparently retail has really gone off the rails.
For those shoppers still left, Retail therapy has never been cheaper. But as with the allure of a light-whip, double-caramel macchiato, it’s lost a bit of its buzz.
You know that if even the big boys are struggling in retail, it’s gotta be especially hard for the little guys.
The storefronts in Bristol, Vergennes and Middlebury are mostly full. But one gets the impression they’re just a short recession away from vacancies. Our downtowns can scarcely afford to lose more retailers.
Many of us are still lamenting the demise of Skihaus. Until last month, an outdoor and clothing store known by that name or as the Alpine Shop had occupied the heart of Middlebury for decades.
The old Skihaus space has been very nicely filled by a second Edgewater Gallery location alongside the newly relocated Otter Creek Kitchenware and Electronics.  But our county can only accommodate so many of those outfits. Plus the presence of online monsters like Amazon makes it even harder for bricks-and-mortar stores wherever they are placed.
But whether it’s off the rack or high on the hog, retail will never be big business in Vermont.
In one sense you might say that the rest of the country has clued in to what has been a way of life in Vermont for more than a couple centuries now.
Living here has rarely been about things. It’s always been about experiences:  The hard but often satisfying life of farming (grains, sheep, cows, now increasingly organic vegetables).  Long days outdoors and quiet evenings by the stove. Friends and family rather than Porsches and Patagonia.
I take it as a good sign that even business gurus are waking up to the pleasure to be found in having experiences instead of buying things. The business of America isn’t just business anymore.
Cornell University researchers have also found that pleasure isn’t just in the aftermath of an experience. It’s also to be found in the anticipation that leads up to participation: We get more excited and happy when we look ahead to an event, compared to the thought of buying something material.
The anticipation of a family vacation at Lake Dunmore, for example, can stir the heart more than the thought of buying a new lawnmower or yet another fleece top. And the memory of a child’s graduation, of a dinner with old friends visiting from far away, of a weekend skinny dipping in a cool Adirondack lake­­ — all those will linger sweetly for years. Long after the fleece top is out of fashion and the lawnmower has gone off to the dump.
That new iPhone 6 glitters brightly in its packaging, but “hedonic adaptation” sets in pretty quickly. And even the best things have their limitations, compared to the places we can go.
The drive over Appalachian Gap is always exhilarating.
But after a while, that new iPhone is just a piece of metal and glass that doesn’t get reception anywhere east of Route 7.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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