All posts by michaelpowell

Desertification and Problematization

This is the fourth and last post in a series on consumerism. Here are links to Post 1, Post 2 and Post 3. I would like to thank Savage Minds for being a gracious host and to all of the commenters who have poked and prodded me in productive directions. Thanks!

One of the most rapidly growing retail forms today is the farmer’s market, a transitory gathering of local farmers who set up tables under tents and provide access to locally grown fruits and vegetables. There are many different types of farmer’s markets, some limiting what a vendor can sell to only produce grown on the vendor’s own farm, while others allow more leeway and may include prepared foods. In California, where I live, farmer’s markets were made legal about 25 years ago. The original intent was to provide access to locally grown fruits and vegetables to lower-class neighborhoods. The idea was that by cutting out the middle-man of grocery stores, farmers could sell produce at a profit but below market rates. Anyone who has been to one of these new farmer’s markets knows that it hasn’t worked out this way. Instead, many farmer’s markets are specifically targeted to the emerging and rapidly expanding “foodie” audience. This is certainly an interesting turn of events, not only because of the original intention of cutting out the middle man, but also because of the way that we can read and interpret the farmer’s market, as well as the way that these symbols of the farm and the farmer’s market have since been appropriated by major food retailers, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Safeway and others. The farm has long been a potent symbolic context in which to sell food—the roadside fruit stand, grain elevators, barns, etc—and you’ll notice at many farmer’s markets that vendors often go out of their way to merchandise their produce using special details, like wooden boxes left rough and chalkboard signage that lets you know the sign was written by hand. Over the course of the last 5 years, Safeway Inc. (a $40 billion dollar chain with 197,000 employees) has renovated nearly its entire chain of almost 2,000 grocery stores across the country, employing a “lifestyle” design that has transformed the “perimeter” of the grocery store into a more organic and food-friendly environment. Their produce section now imitates many elements of a traditional farmer’s market, with wood floors and produce in wood boxes (except no nails sticking out).

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The Human Factor

This is my third guest blog post in a series on consumerism today. You can read the first post here, and the second post here.

I have already started to outline a shift in consumerism today, looking at the emergence of a new corporate discipline called “shopper marketing,” as well as a potential emerging corporate consciousness of the role of retail environments in shaping consumer behavior. What I find most interesting about these changes in consumerism is not just what people are buying or how retail environments do or do not shape the way shoppers think, but the changing, shifting and evolving strategies retailers employ to inform store design. This is significant because I would assert that store design plays a critical role in producing and changing culture—for example, through its influence on the food we eat or the food we even have available to us. This post addresses another major trend employed in retail strategy—innovation and design—as well as the way that the figure (or “face”) of “the anthropologist” supposedly plays a key role in innovation today.

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Can Shoppers Think?

This is my second guest blog post in a series on consumerism today. You can read the first post here.

I referenced in my prior post a Deloitte study that suggested that retail stores should be considered like any other marketing medium. This is an idea that has actually been around in retail for quite some time, but the response has been uneven in the business world. While some stores are highly evocative, others are bare bones. A Whole Foods is not a Walmart.

What few studies of consumerism tend to get into are the details of how people actually interact with a retail environment. Consider Ikea. The store essentially contains two main phases that are much more than opportunities to shop. Ikea is actually prompting us to think and act in a specific way: dream, and then act. The first phase of the Ikea experience puts shoppers in an environment that provokes conversation, discussion and debate about how our home space could be altered, picked apart and then pieced back together. Here, you will rarely see individuals. People come to Ikea in household groups: families, spouses or potential spouses. The store places shoppers in a home context and then, in places, isolate out elements—couches, chairs, shelving—before bringing you back to contexts through a choreographed procession. And after you have moved through the top floor dream space, the ground floor is the place where you can actually find your selections. Instead of a home context, it feels more like a warehouse. This is more than merely functional, it also reinforces the concept that Ikea’s prices are as low as possible. You couldn’t buy furniture cheaper unless it fell off the back of a warehouse truck.

As I was sitting on a floor model couch one Saturday afternoon in the Burbank Ikea, watching a family of four take over a kitchen space, point out design details to one another, imagine how they might make omelettes there and where they would prefer to move lights, a Levi-Straussian observation struck me that is probably obvious to any reader of this blog: Retail is good to think with. Our retail environments, even those much less compelling than Ikea, are always somehow guiding or trying to guide us.

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From Consumers, To Shoppers

Thanks Chris, for the introduction. As mentioned, I am currently located at a firm that designs consumer environments, most often for specific brands. By and large, we work with grocery stores, big box retailers, convenience stores and consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs). This position has allowed me access to the world of consumerism, which I’m hoping to write about more, and Savage Minds has kindly given me a space to think about this. What you’ll find in this and subsequent posts is a mix of semi-shaped insights and under-theorized observations. I hope to receive feedback, reflection and productive criticisms from some of the readers, responders and even lurkers on this blog. So, this is where my thoughts begins…

Advertising is dead.

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