Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pushing the re-set button on American retail

My mental back-burner's been simmering since the former post, “A Plea to Anthropologie.”

I fell short on a few critical points about this business proposal. Keep in mind, the mission of this blog is "dedicated to a robust reuse market." We do this by offering tips, testimonials, photos and stories from our readers. Sometimes we must pull back our sleeves and climb out on the fragile limb of brainstorming alternatives to the current retail system. Strange how this can be such a touchy subject.

Our American retail system has effectively constructed many mental obstacles on our consumer highway. New product retailers cling fast to their current MO - which is slowly (and not so slowly in some cases) destroying their customers' purchasing power. Even the most simple business model shows we can't buy much if we have no money. Who wins then? Example, do we wait until we’ve tapped all the global oil wells before we are forced by a monumental crisis to significantly make change?There is such a thing as change that can benefit both retailer and consumer. It's time.

It messes with my brain to witness how short-sighted the American cultural ecosystem has become. We’re short-sighted on energy, education, economics, health care. Even our eating habits are short- sighted. Short attention spans, anyone?

Obviously businesses are in business to first make a profit, or they can't do anything else, but that doesn't mean that's all they can ever do. Sadly, whenever someone hints that businesses consider having a social conscience, the market stops smiling and wags that nasty finger, declaring such a gesture would be one from a"socialist" or "anti-capitalist." Tell you what. Businesses better start caring about their American customers. Guess what guys, the majority of us? We've just about maxed out on credit and have little assets left. If you don't think it necessary to care about the health of your customers, I recommend you move your retail centers overseas to the countries were you've outsourced our income. However, you will need to adjust your price point to a third world economy.

I can't believe how much unsolicited credit lenders at throw at us. Should I jack the Golightly spending up to its credit limit, I can't fathom how the debt would ever be paid off, even with our modest but very smart mortgage. I’ll bet there are consumers out in Credit Land who could have bought two homes with all the (non-mortgage) interest they’ve shelled out. Someone please explain how this is good or right.
I once stood in line behind a woman at a major retailer who had two credit cards denied on her purchase. The clerk then gave her a 10% discount by opening a new credit account sponsored by the retailer. The clerk was thrilled because she received a commission for adding a new credit customer and the customer was thrilled because she now had more credit to mismanage. So there you have it. Spend money you don’t have. It’s okay. Really. Just live in the moment with your spending, it's the USA!

Here’s a few of what I perceive as mental/cultural obstacles that get in the way of people coming to understand the former post. If you don’t like Anthropologie - great - substitute a store you do like and believe sells a lasting, quality product.

Secondhand is not a market strictly open to poor people. I believe major discount big-box retailers have done a bang up job pushing the economically poor through their racks and double-wide register lines to purchase cheaply made crap. Unfortunately, this population has been, for some time, targeted as a growth industry. I cannot imagine how any architect can now design a structurally sound bridge to connect the gap between the haves and have-nots that "sustain" current conventional shopping. How about the corporate retail moguls be the first to test out that bridge? It might be wise to think about the purchasing patterns of such a large (and growing) segment of our society. Don’t ya think? Instead of thinking about methods to milk the poor, how about methods to give the poor milk so they can have strong economic bones to run that economic mile?

Secondhand is a market - plain and simple. There seems to be a misconception that profit cannot be pulled in this market. Au contraire! Goodwill has been widely recognized as a terrific business model. Okay, yeah, they are run off donations. But! Stores like Buffalo Exchange are thriving. We don't need to be victims of the usual demographic pigeonholes. We can dare to brainstorm alternatives.

Consumers don’t balk on buying a used house or car. Why the drama and disgust on other used items (unless they're considered antique or vintage)?  Most readers of this blog have no hang ups with secondhand goods. But, step outside your community and examine mainstream America. They have serious problems with it, almost a borderline phobia. I know, I know! I run into my friends at the neighborhood thrift and no one is embarrassed. It’s like meeting for coffee. I’ve friends who have significant income who shop thrift and feel not an ounce of shame. But there are people who would rather indiscriminately abuse $40K in credit card power by purchasing $178 blue jeans (yes, at stores I cite on this blog) rather than even considering a similar (or even identical) pair for $4.99. This may be true even if the original price tags for $178 were still dangling from the thrift store pair!  My fellow thrifters, these people don't need our pity, they need our help! Maybe conversion to second hand can be an act of civic responsibility. Don't think twice about it

There are more points to be scored in mass reuse than recycling. We mostly recycle down in product quality. The business world likes recycling because it doesn't really offer much competition. Recycling is a worthy practice. There is a now a huge industry that supports recycling. Note recycling requires a respectable use of energy to transform the product. Recycling = Good. What's wrong with Reuse = Good?

Reuse fundamentally requires a simple exchange via transaction. Purchasing a gently-used wardrobe? That's competition for new product. How strange that most Americans like the word competition, but not if it's from reuse. Fine for department stores to sell a "lot" of unsold merchandise to close-out retailers. But reuse? Forget it. I guess the American businesses want us to just chuck our reusable items in landfills to clear out our homes so we can purchase more new stuff. This is actually happening with some large retailers. They destroy unsold merchandise before placing in it the dumpster. Remember this January post in 2010?

It is entirely possible to build a reuse economy that caters to different economic tiers. There is a relatively small system of a tiered reuse market in place but, it’s in desperate need of growth both in product and customer quantity. There’s enough inventory in American homes to sustain a sweet secondhand market. Think of all the stuff that’s been acquired via decades of conspicuous consumption. Wow. And it’s just sitting there in closets, attics, and basements. We’ve even had an entire storage economy housing this stuff! Double wow.

Our market system was once globally admired because it encouraged ingenuity, not just greed. Used house and car market aside, its an irony that we lack the collective creativity to succeed in a statistically significant way through a more open and prevalent resale reality.


Jana Miller said...

Loved this one as much as your last post. I now buy almost all of my clothing at Goodwill and very few of my friends even realize that I do. It started off as a game with see if I could do it. And here I am almost a year later. I dress very well and you would never guess it's mostly from Goodwill and mostly never worn clothing. I just discovered Buffalo Exchange too.

You are on the right track.
xo Jana

Shopping Golightly said...

Thanks Jana.

There is an odd silence in the comment section to this post despite that comments are usually down in the summer. Regardless, I feel compelled to cite the power the conventional retail economy plays against expanding the secondhand market.

Secondhand is "cute" as long as it stays in yard sales, small Ebay shops and charitable thrift stores. But, heaven forbid we take the enormous inventory of secondhand and put it back into the market in any significant manner. Doing this would be a tremendous benefit on so many levels, mainly economic and environmental. There is no reason why current retailers could not devise a system that delivers them a profit via secondhand sales.

I also have concern that the media portrays second hand spending as a temporary alternative until the country gains stronger economic footing.

Perhaps this is the first obstacle recycling faced. When I was a child, I noticed a birthday card someone had sent was on recycled paper. My child brain truly thought the card was dirty. But that was the musings of a child, ignorant to the process and benefits of recycling. Once I learned more mostly on child-level terms, that recycling saves forests, my opinion was forever changed.

So what exactly could be the trigger to reset the American retail market button?

Amber said...

Thank you for this post! Not only do I fervently support the reuse market, but I am a public school teacher (middle school English, in case you were curious!). I live my life by the motto "reduce, reuse, recycle" and try desperately to instill these values in my students. Some students get it and practice these values at home, other students think I am part of the "evil twisted lie" that global warming is a real threat. *Sigh*.

My students live in a city defined as "poor" according to social economic standards, but balk when I proclaim my clothes and classroom are made up of secondhand, thrifted items. How can this be?

I didn't become a teacher for the paycheck (obviously), but to inspire future generations to achieve their highest level of greatness. It's hard for me to accept that our highest level of greatness is what's for sale on the current American market.

I too am concerned with how the media portrays the reuse and reduction of items is a temporary alternative. What's wrong with reusing and reducing as a way of life?

While I cannot force my students to reuse, reduce, and recycle, I can encourage them to recognize when they are being falsely influenced and persuaded. Fortunately, the American market provides a wealth of information for my students rhetorical analysis of negative influence!

Keep up the fight!

Shopping Golightly said...


As a parent of two daughters, I give you my heart-felt thanks for taking up teaching. As my children have progressed through the public education system, I cannot give enough credit and praise for their teachers. To me, teachers are in the trenches fighting for our future and well being. Too often we discredit teachers instead on turning our eyes to the parents. It's a shared responsibility.

I've met up with many people who wish to call Global Warming hooey. To them I say, this is not about the temperature of the planet, it's simply about what makes sense and what is good for our generations to come. Can we continue to pollute our air, dump crap in landfills, deforest the planet? When couched in those terms people usually see things differently.

Back at ya! You keep up the fight too! I've a feeling your audience is more impressionable and you can change more lives.

Anonymous said...

I am always inspired by your blog, but these last two posts even more so.

We also live by Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. I shop exclusively at thrift stores for clothes for the whole family (except undies, socks, and yoga shorts). We also generally try to use less. My husband and I have grown stronger in our own commitment to reuse and reduction of use to model those values for our children.

The strangest thing happens to me outside of my family. I'll be wearing a cute shirt I picked up at Goodwill and a friend will ask me about it. I proudly share where I picked it up, and she laughs and shakes her head at me. As if to say "oh, Vicki, you and your cute little thrift habit." And then she goes to Banana Republic or J Crew and spends a fortune on a plain t-shirt, only to throw out her other plain t-shirt in the same color that still fit.

I believe, as Paolo Friere said, that we "make the path by walking" but I want to inspire people to commit to thrift in the way that you have.

Cheers to you!

Shopping Golightly said...

Crazy how many people will buy a pet rock or a Chia Homer Simpson head, but look down their nose at a gently-used sweater.

Shabby Vintage Junk said...

I do so LOVE reading this blog....Everything I think & FEEL about mass production, commercialism & greed is reflected in your well chosen words....Alas....These thoughts swirl about chaotically in my head & I KNOW I'd never be able to set them free as succinctly as you do here....!!


Cheers from Australia where ALMOST all our goods are manufactured in bloody China,
Tamarah :o)

Shopping Golightly said...

Add bobble heads to pointless items people will purchase over gently used.

Maybe I should list out all the crap people will buy before considering thrift.

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