Saturday, August 07, 2021

The End of Peak Consumerism And Impacts

 Brett and Kate McKay at The Art of Manliness posted an interesting article this week entitled "Curbside Pickup and the End of Peak Consumerism".  In it, Brett relates his experience in going into a grocery store for the first time since the start of the pandemic (they had been picking up their groceries at the store up to this point):

"After being away from in-store shopping for a while, I felt like I saw the store with fresh eyes. And what I was so strongly struck by, was just how full it was of absolute — and pardon my French, but this is really the most apt word here — bullsh*t food. Flamin’ Hot Funyuns, 3D Doritos, Twix-topped yogurt, Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies Cereal (which admittedly does sound really good). A dozen different kinds of Oreos. Endless varieties of soda and frozen dinners. Aisle after aisle of unnecessary, unhealthy, laboratory-created, market-tested, packaged products that could only be called food in the most generous sense."

From this beginning, McKay goes through a history of the shopping experience as developed in America, as it changed from only the purchase of necessities for the masses to the idea of shopping as an experience, driven largely by the peculiarly American invention the shopping mall.

What changed?  Online shopping:

"Society’s shift towards online shopping, which began more than a decade ago, has exponentially accelerated during the pandemic. While prior to the coming of COVID, people had already converted to buying things like clothes online, many still held out on shopping for things like groceries at physical stores. Over the last year and half, however, more and more folks have started doing almost all their shopping digitally. Online grocery sales increased by more than 50% last year. While only 6.6% of major retailers offered the option of curbside pickup in early 2020, now more than half do. And 64% of respondents to a recent survey said they planned to order more online in the future."

As had been said on this site multiple times, I am not a shopper.  I do not enjoy the shopping experience.  Yes, I was a child of the 70's and 80's and once upon a time heading to the mall for a Friday night of mostly walking around (to be completely fair; teenagers in that era were notorious spendthrifts), but over time that feel away as I simply enjoyed the experience less and less.  My shopping experience now is pretty tight circle of grocery store and used book stores, with lesser appearances in the Big Box Home Store, the Pet Store, and the Sporting Goods store.

But if I am completely thoughtful about it, I find myself in the same position as McKay describes more and more.

The Used Book Store chain is enjoyable, but they have what I am looking for less and less now.  Yes, occasionally one can find a delightful surprise, but more often than not I leave with nothing, a development that would not have happened three years ago.  It is far more easy to find exactly what I want on a site like Alibris, which has coupons and the ability to get points through Mypoints (and earn points on the Flight Credit Card, a triple win).  For the Pet Store, I literally go in for one item now (filters for the fish tank), which I honestly could just as easily order online.  The Sporting Goods store is the same - sports shoes I can get online and I suppose ammunition as well.   Only the Grocery Store and the Big Box Home store still require me to go in, mostly from my inability to actually buy what I am supposed to get there (well, to be fair, rabbit supplies at the rabbit shelter, but in all fairness I am there anyway.

Clothing?  Socks and undergarments are all ordered online anymore.  The last time I went into a store for clothes was two years ago for a new suit (likely I will never need one again).  There is no need anymore - especially with my change in business locations to my home - to dress for business anymore.

From this, the McKays derive the potential of declining consumerism:

"But a change in our consumption patterns may, happily, be one shift that proves both positive and enduring. It’s not as if corporations don’t have other ways, outside the in-person shopping experience, to entice us to buy their wares. But in a time where people discard the catalogs they receive in the mail without looking at them, block ads on websites, and watch television shows on ad-free streaming services, in-person shopping was one of the last fronts companies had, as Packard put it, to get people to buy things they don’t need and didn’t know they wanted. Thus, its decline may very well represent the death knell for the West’s entrenchment in excess consumerism."

Here, I think the McKays are doing some wishful thinking.

If you are like me and in any kind of area that people are in, your day is filled with delivery trucks driving by (and maybe, if you are my house, stopping as well):  Fed Ex,  UPS, USPS, Amazon.  Online shopping and credit cards have made it much easier to shop than ever before - and credit cards have the added benefit for the retailer that one does not have to "have the cash on hand" to spend it.  I would argue being able to buy something from anywhere just increases the ability of consumers to spend, not decreases it (and this does not cover things like the ability to buy things that purely exist in cyberspace, like upgrades for on-line games).

Sadly, the decline of consumerism still remains a personal choice.

But in all of this prediction of the downfall of consumerism and the rise of online-ism (You saw this word here first, folks), the McKays miss one critical point:  the fate of those that work in the stores.

A decline in the use of stores, be it online or even with curbside delivery, ultimately means that those which are non-profitable will shut down.  We have already seen this in many industries of course:  There is no more video tape or DVD industry and movies theaters in some ways may be on their way out.  Banks and insurance companies have shed the brick and mortar shells for online calls centers or even work from home options.  Those stores and industries that depended on people coming to shop or dine or get their hair/nails/back done have all suffered.

When those jobs disappear - and they will disappear - semi-skilled job seekers will be left with a shrinking pool of jobs.  Yes, online shopping means fulfillment and delivery jobs - but the push to automate these will continue to grow (think the robots in The Borg warehouse and automated delivery trucks; these are already being experimented with) and the stories one hears of available jobs like warehouse worker and delivery driver are none too enchanting.  Perhaps one might think of things like grocery stores that convert to only curbside pickup - but if you have been in a grocery store lately, you have seen these workers as well: individuals with a phone in hand wandering with a cart or rolling rack, picking things up and rolling them through.

It is hardly the future of The Jetsons.

This trend will not be stopped by anything other than a total collapse (or total war, I suppose):  the convenience of not going in to shop has now become rooted in our psyche and shopping as an experience continues to shrink, not expand.  But it strikes me that even as we see this trend developing we are doing precisely nothing to address it.  We face the very real specter - who can tell when it arrives - of millions that are effectively no longer employable without significant investment, not only by things like schools and trades and government, but by themselves in their own lives.

I am not arguing for consumerism and shopping for the sake of employment.  But I do not think we can somehow pretend that the long term impact of all of this is not as glowing as what the McKays posit.


  1. Any discussion of economics invariably has to include politics. I can skirt most by saying that of far more import is that our leaders are selling out the middle class to foreign countries and domestic business oligarchs in exchange for personal gain. The expenses in loss of retail revenue are insignificant compared to the losses inflicted on the housing, oil and gas and natural resource based industries.

    Not saying that to be mean or political… and if you wish to delete it, fill your boots and think nothing of it.

    1. But it's true.
      Plus one.

    2. Glen, I certainly do not disagree with you that this includes politics, and that it certainly does seem like in every arena - including manufacturing and raw materials, as you point out - there are bad actors involved. At the same time, this is also a result of economists who tout "best good at lowest cost" as the ultimate good of any economy, overlooking any sort of national value that retaining those industries has, and a greedy consumer base that has come to expect such a thing, not caring for what it does to the larger national interest as a whole. I have had this argument with the basis of capitalism as practiced in the US for 30 years. Once again, I managed to pick the losing side.

  2. My concern has to do with the increasing lack of face-to-face human interaction. Back when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, I read a sci-fi book or short story about a society in which everyone was somehow "plugged" in to what we now call the internet. It was a disturbing idea then, and now that we are on the verge of living like that, I am petrified.

    Albeit to varying degrees, humans are social beings; how does civilization continue absent actual, physical contact? Do people meet on line and then in person to "hook up," or do we start shipping semen like they do with cattle? How do you teach compassion if everyone is isolated and concerned only with their own desires?

    I know this post was about commerce, but it seems that the more we move away from being out in public, the more isolated we become, and I'm not sure that's a good thing.

    1. There was at least one Doctor Who episode on a similar theme. And the Doctor had to unplug them all to solve whatever it was that I can't remember now.

    2. sbrgirl - They are indeed related subjects.

      My sister, a teacher, made the comment today that children entering the second grade have not had more than 3 months of in-class instruction. The remainder of their kindergarten year and all of their 1st grade year was remote. We have middle schoolers that entered 6th the same way and are now in 8th, and high school juniors that only know one semester of class on campus.

      Civilization - at least to this point - has been a highly social process, largely because we had no technology to replace it. Now we have the technology, but it is doubtful we have changed enough to accept it.

      I think the unfortunate reality is that what we are seeing online - the yelling and shouting and name throwing - will more and more translate into the real world as people have learned that this is the way to interact.

      Dating and relationships? I can hardly imagine, other than to note that dating apps (and there are, apparently, many) are likely to become the screen process (or hook up process) for the future. Who has the time in the modern world to work through showing interest and building a relationship? Far easier to use an app.

      I am grateful, for any number of reasons, I do not have to navigate that particular minefield. In no way do I see it working out well.

  3. Grocery stores have been filled for decades with junk foods full of empty calories. Whenever I go grocery shopping, I mostly stay to the outsides. I go up the produce aisle, across the back row fresh meats section and down the dairy and bread aisle. I only stray down the occasional item for specific staples like baking stuff or pasta. 99.9% of the inner aisles is stuff I am not interested in.

    I think you are forgetting one big item. From one I have seen, the poor have shown no tendency to change their shopping habits to online judging from the crowded Walmart parking lot and low end grocery stores. Unless the government invests billions/trillions in internet infrastructure, I only see their ranks growing along with the number of poor people.

    1. It is true Ed. My shopping trips tend to be a lot like yours - produce, meats, dairy, and out the door.

      It is interesting to ponder the question of the poor and their relationship to the low end shopping chains of the world. I cannot assess to what extent poverty creates an obstacle to shopping online (almost everyone has cell phones now, perhaps less have credit or debt cards) or if it is a function of people wanting something now. If I buy something online, I usually have to wait a space for it to arrive.

      I doubt such an investment in infrastructure is coming. However, I am not sure to what extent any of us want to live in a world of Walmarts and Grocery Outlets.

  4. What were your first three jobs?
    1. Bonanza Steakhouse
    2. The County Seat
    3. Krogers

    Fast Food, Mall Clothes, Grocery Store.

    Those jobs will all be gone soon. 2 of my 3 are now bankrupt and gone, and Krogers may be gone soon too.

    What will young people do?
    Universal Basic Income? Fight in the Civil War?
    Slavery or an attempt at freedom could become the only options.
    Slavery is evil but simple. Civil War is costly and dangerous.

    The old joke that Americans can all learn to code is becoming less and less funny.

    1. Just So - What a fascinating question? My first four:
      1) Fast Food Chain
      2) Yard Helper
      3) Healing/Cooling Assistant
      4) Shoe sales person, Kmart

      To your point, of my four one (Kmart) is completely gone, one (Fast Food) is automating, and two were private endeavors that ended as soon as my relationship with the owner ended. I have related before, but of the 9 companies I have worked for in the biopharmaceutical industry, 8 of them have been purchased or gone out of business.

      What will they do? The coding comment, originally given in earnest by someone who has no idea to code, has come to symbolize the disconnection between policy and reality (as did the sentiment "Farming is not that hard".). There are a finite number of technology jobs, and technology does not always create goods that have value; it just as often creates ways to do things more efficiently and effectively. Ultimately we are all still human; we still need things like food and clothes and shelter, along with all the other things that civilization requires us to have in order to function in it.

      This is indeed a problem that is not going away, and it certainly feels like very little is being done to combat it. As you say, slavery or war may end up the only options.

    2. First W4 jobs.
      Mowing lawns, stuffing envelopes, selling newspaper subscriptions door to door, huckster at the local flea market, these were my real first jobs.

    3. Fair Just So. The first, third and fourth were all W4 jobs. The other one was cash on the barrelhead.

  5. Yes, I see this too. Overall, I'd say that in the local Big Grocery Stores, less than a third of the space is devoted to what I would call food and household staples. The rest is crap snacks and sugar-laden junk. This is reflected in the general shape of the average American.

    1. NM - Having traveled as regularly as I have in the last year, I can only second what you say. It certainly seems like we are far less healthy than we were even twenty years ago. I am sure that out on the InterWeb there is a statistic on the cost of obesity, but that is a cost that will never be mentioned except in passing.

  6. I like the personal touch of walking through the store and seeing the neat rows of stuff. Makes my head feel good. We have a lot of lower middle class and poor folks, so they walk around like me. When I got pneumonia, I had 2 deliveries from our local store to the house, and that was amazing. Last time, I went there and they loaded up the truck. Saw a lot of youngsters with giant trucks listening to thump-thump waiting to be served. I don't have A/C in the truck, so I rolled down a window and started to sweat waiting for the delivery. I saw them as status seekers, and me as a thankful wheezing geezer. But if you can afford to have someone do your chores, fine by me.

    The changes are there, though. Empty buildings abound, and no one to buy them. I bought everything through the online retailer route for the month of July, and glad I had the option! But times are changing quickly now. Got to stay in touch, or risk being a troglodyte.

    1. STxAR, one of the longer term impacts of this whole Plague business (surely to be the subject of theses and dissertations for years to come) will be the social impacts of being apart for so long. One wonders - well, sbrgirl anyway, and I agree with her - that will we lose the ability to interact with other humans in a general sense, like walking around in a store.

      Interestingly, at least in our parts, the curbside pickup requires no more money than going in the store. I am not sure if it a function of trying to "hook" a new service and then charge for it, or finding that making something convenient will build a habit for people to always shop at the store.

  7. I just saw a commercial on Yoplait Yogurt. Which I like. But with Skittles? Why, I ask, and say "I don't think so."

    To be fair to the bookstore, you are cutting back on the books you want to read, therefore it will be harder for them to have something you want.

    When it comes to fresh food, diary, meats and fish, I still prefer to choose my own. But I do miss the old style butcher's case. Every now and then I can find one in Louisiana; but they are often in small towns and located in a gas station/quick stop.

    Overall I would have to agree with your bottom line. With that many people unemployed, it won't go well.
    You only need so many programmers.

    Now lawyers....

    1. Linda, there are a lot of food combinations that seem to be nothing more than "How much sugar can we pump into a product?"

      It is a fair point on the books and perhaps a logical outcome - although disappointing, as I do like looking through bookstores.

      I, too, still find value in selecting meat and produce personally. Dairy a little less, as we usually just get milk, butter, and some basic cheese (I make the yogurt and some other cheeses). Butcher stores are few and far between here as well, and are often as not "upscale" affairs. I am happy they are able to make a living at it, but sad as I cannot afford upscale meat prices.

      One wishes the government pushed actual non-governmental job creation as hard as they pushed cash relief. It would change the tenor and tone of our conversations, and perhaps move to instill some kind of larger work ethic - alas, teaching people to be responsible for themselves means making them less reliant on someone else, which are words government never likes to hear.

      On the lawyers - I read an article today that the average lawyer's salary exiting law school is around $76,000. That is an okay salary, but not for the three years and thousands of dollars most people are in debt to do it. You can do just as well as a manager in a fast food establishment.

    2. That's part of the problem, too. I can't afford the "upscale" prices either. But yet they have to charge those prices to stay in business.

      I definitely agree that if the government didn't hate the small business (because they can't pay the graft the people in government want), America would be in a better place. More jobs putting more people to work. Just not what our government wants.

      I wonder, as fast food phases out workers for automation, will a manager still be needed? Repair people, maybe?

    3. Linda, I suspect that you will also need a "staff" at an automated restaurant, but the needs would change. It would be more like a production line, with a tech monitoring output and a repair technician onsite or on call as needed. I can see a case where you would have a single person per shift and a manager per restaurant overseeing a staff of 6-10.


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