With the Christmas buying splurge ready to crank up a gear, Neil Douglas of B&A wonders if our synchronised consumption habits of the last twenty months will disappear as some sort of normality returns to our lives.
We have been given a bright light to look at ourselves more closely during the Pandemic and it seems that in the absence of new experiences, we have turned to what we can buy as a focus for our aspirations. With the existential threat of catching Covid-19, our missed holidays, missed rituals and missed social experiences, there has been a growth of other trends.
When travel restrictions were first introduced it became clear that holidays are about more than just two weeks in the sun. Many of us even felt a sense of loss as we did not have something to look forward to. Holidays seem to have a deeper emotional value.
During the planning stages of a holiday there can be lots of time and emotional energy invested in the potential options. After a holiday is booked there can then be frequent checking and musing on activities.
The trip itself certainly brings unique experiences, but there is actually a lot of time spent afterwards reliving experiences and sharing stories. Thus, the value we take from a holiday is as much about the anticipation of the trip and then the memories it generates afterwards. Without holidays during the Pandemic, we found we needed other things to fill the void.
In particular, we have seen apparently unconnected, yet profoundly altered purchase and consumption behaviour.
What has been intriguing is the way this behaviour has been strongly synchronised, not only in Ireland but across the western world.
Indeed, what we buy and why we buy gives us an interesting lens for viewing our cultural health. It is perhaps not much of a stretch to say that these synchronised consumer trends give us an insight about our shared state of mind. In a way we have been effectively ‘binge buying’ to soothe ourselves.
Let’s recall on some of the notable examples as the Pandemic unfolded:
Early examples of our synchronised consumption include the emptying of supermarket shelves in specific categories. What was so essential about toilet paper and canned foods when lockdown started? Perhaps we were anticipating some kind of windswept post-apocalyptic world where we could not leave our homes. But it was the first clear example of our shared madness. There are others.
In early lockdowns, we embraced more. More of what we did previously. More was good and after all we deserved it: more booze, more food, better booze, better food and of course more TV. Many added more online streaming subscriptions. Netflix was not enough.
Great Irish Bake-off
The next phase of our synchronised consumption seemed to have a more virtuous quality as it felt like a return to something traditional and worthy – we all baked stuff.
For a while you could not buy flour as everyone sought a different kind of reassurance. We needed a feeling of self-reliance where Lockdown had removed our sense of agency in our own lives. Baking also became a means of extending the experience of food, elevating our involvement in the kitchen beyond the functional requirements of nutrition.
And then came the bizarre ‘sourdough’ fetish as we pushed the boundaries of our baking skills seeking validation and a sense of achievement in a world where we had lost the usual markers of progress. Did our starter survive its first few days? What name did we give it?
Was our sourdough as good as we hoped? As good as our friends’ attempts?
Food and food preparation became a focus for caring, challenge and aspiration, fulfilling much more of our emotional needs than previously. In a sense, we all needed a way to stretch our consumption experience to replace things we had lost.
The next phase of our shared consumption came in the guise of helping to better manage working from home.
This went beyond a new desk and chair. Spare rooms became home gyms, the shed became a home office. We started to reconfigure our homes with better demarcation of workspace and leisure space. We could segment our time and our space.
But here too we found an unusual level of synchronisation. What is going on when every house in your street has built a cabin in the garden or purchased a pizza oven? Trapped at home these consumer purchases seem like forms of escape, a feeling of something different, a little holiday in your back garden perhaps?
Now as the country enters the next stage of our synchronised experience, what can we expect of the future? Will we maintain habits we have developed during Lockdown? Or return to the way we used to be pre-Covid?
There are some illuminating stories that bear a closer look.
In recent business to business research, we have been hearing about the unusual problems faced by many industries triggered by consumer demand.
As consumers increasingly focus on things it has placed a strain on the usually ‘invisible’ world of ‘components’ and ‘logistics’.
We have seen the way that people have upgraded their working spaces at home, but also their working from home equipment, with a new laptop and a webcam on the shopping list. But many have also indulged in new entertainment devices like a new game console, a bigger screen TV or a new coffee machine.
All of these devices need computer chips and there is now a worldwide shortage of those semi-conductors. Partly impacted by localised events, but undoubtedly marking a threshold for our consumption, there is now simply not enough chips to go around.
Perhaps even more telling are the logistics nightmares faced by companies with international supply chains. Container ships are regularly delayed by 12 weeks queuing up offshore awaiting a slot in their destination port.
This is perhaps the latest marker of our synchronised madness as we simultaneously seek to replace experience with stuff we can buy online.
We have got used to flicking through online portals tempted by things for ourselves, things for our friends and things for our family.
I wonder if these online orders are emotionally like writing letters to Santa. When the doorbell jingles there is nothing better than a delivery package, right? There is a sense of anticipation, delayed gratification and then an explosion of delight (or dismay). And after all we can be sure we ‘deserve these gifts to ourselves’ can’t we? No one expects to receive coal from Amazon any more than a child on Christmas morning.
We have just been through that weird Black Friday event again and I wonder if this is a bumper year for sales (given our increased focus on things) or will the lustre have begun to wear off a little?
Ultimately what is next for these strange phases of synchronised consumption? Will we shift back to something more varied and nuanced as the world opens up?
It seems likely that we will find a less synchronised form of consumption, but I suspect putting up with a longer wait for the things we want and higher prices for the things we can get is the next stage we will face.
At the end of the day perhaps it is the simpler questions we should focus on, just as we have all been doing for the last two years: ‘what will I watch tonight’ and of course, ‘will it arrive on time?’
Neil Douglas is a director of B&A