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Sunday, October 23, 2016

In 1916, Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia sponsored a children’s parade with heralds, a brass band, Jack the Giant Killer, clowns, girls as snowflakes, boys as silver stars and Santa Claus transported by four Eskimos to his throne in the Royal Red Theater — every morning it was open during the Christmas season. You don’t get that on Facebook.

Nowadays, despite the lack of spectacle, much shopping is moving online. The purchases there are more targeted. People going into the stores, meanwhile, are observed honoring strict shopping lists. Impulse buying seems on the way out.

Certainly, some of this frugality is a hangover from the economic trauma of six years ago. The recession smashed Americans’ comfort with debt, belief in real estate and faith in an ever-more prosperous future. Many feel the sting of stagnant wages. Even winners in this strengthening economy seem to be holding back.

But a more fundamental change may be afoot, a change in belief systems. Americans may be moving into an era of post-materialism. If so, retailing faces a whole different ballgame.

Post-materialism is defined as a reorientation of values away from the big-ticket luxuries, such as fancy cars, and toward self-expression and quality of life. It could mean choosing more free time over working longer to support a big home.

This trend is strongest in rich countries, where the basics of food, shelter and security are taken for granted. The World Values Survey shows Australia having the highest proportion of post-materialists, 35 percent, followed by Austria, Canada, Italy and then the United States, at 25 percent.

Less time spent shopping combined with tighter consumption could prove problematic for traditional stores. They thrive on shoppers buying things they didn’t come for.

The formula, especially in the busy holiday season, is to lure customers in the door with a few super-bargains (the loss leaders). The expectation is that the shoppers will hang around to buy additional items at the usual marked-up prices. But today, stores say, consumers are doing hit-and-run raids, snagging the cheapo deals while ignoring the shiny things thrown in their path.

Another retailing tactic is to put the necessities that draw folks to the store in hard-to-reach places. Even grocers know to put fun things between you and the milk. But food shoppers, too, are reportedly heading like laser beams to items on their lists and ignoring all else.

Before going on, let’s put in a good word for consumption. The lust to amass stuff associated with The Good Life is not entirely bad. It fuels the economy, and if budgets aren’t broken in the process, a splurge now and then can at least temporarily raise the spirits — doubly so when done in the company of other merrymakers.

Sadly, many of today’s shopping experiences do not raise the spirits. Picking up a cheaply made import at a big-box store on a drab strip is not quite the same thing as shopping for toys on a festive Main Street. Surely, the sameness of mall shopping has driven many a consumer online, where prices are transparent, the selection broad and traffic is zero.

But we must again ask: To what extent is the new thrift driven not by immediate economic concerns but by profound changes in values? We see evidence of the latter in the minimalist hipster ethic of smaller, urban living and less dependence on cars. It’s in the angst of champion consumers for whom “decluttering” has become a religion.

Americans used to shop till they dropped. Now they’ve stopped. If growing post-materialist attitudes are behind these developments, a lot of economic bets will be off.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected] To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at

AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

  • atc333

    Oops! Could it be this is a case of the GOP shooting Corporate America in the foot? Somehow, in all of the redistribution of wealth that the GOP has sucessfully accomplished for the top 2%, they had forgotten that the economic engine that actually drives America’s economy was the Middle Class” Now that the 98% is learning how to survive on less, America’s buying habbits have changed. This is what happens when minimum wage today buy less than 70% of what it did years ago, income levels for most is stagnent, and over the past 6 years after having created the Bush II Economic Meltdown, the GOP has done nothing but block and stall real job creation legislation, as America’s ` infrastructure slowly continues to deteriorate, and the GOP looks for mare ways to cut taxes for America’s “job creators”.

    It looks like we are in for a real show over the next two years!

    • joe schmo

      2%? Where prey tell do you get that figure. It’s the 1% and that includes Liberals.

    • bckrd1

      That show had better open people’s eyes because they are going to attempt to steal the Presidency again and implement more onerous laws before the vote comes in November of 2016. If people don’t get to vote because the GOP has put road blocks up with onerous requirements and paperwork from the day you born and this and that and where is this piece of paper showing whatever from every transformation of life. Birth, service, marriage, divorce, original social security card, etc. It is disgusting the hurdles they put in front of their own citizens while bombing countries to give them democracy. I always shook my head when Bush talked of giving Iraq and it’s people freedom while they took ours. You could not even protest or go to a convention unless you were approved. Yeah that’s freedom to a Republican. It is not the word everyone thinks they mean. Ask them to define it sometime oh and ask Paul Ryan whose Prosperity that Path leads to?

      They are not only making the documents onerous they are making getting to the agencies onerous. Google what Wisconsin does to people. My friend in Florida got put the wringer trying to get his mother her ID since she doesn’t drive her license expired. The f’g officials would not even let her use her license that is already in their system having already validated all her information when the issued the license will not use the existing info they already have because the license expired. She now has to prove she is who she says she is. Is that not the most fucked up bullshit? This is what they do. They dismantle and break and then tell you it it is broken.

  • James Bowen

    I sure hope this article is correct. The economy based on mass conspicuous consumption was a very bad idea to begin with.

    • bckrd1

      Much like relying on oil to fund your economy. Not looking good for Iran, Russia and Venezuela. I am sure there are more but still not very smart to have your entire security compromised on one source of income that is so volatile.

      I hear Putin is closing hospitals and firing health care workers including doctors. Now how is that a good idea? And why pick such a vital part of the infrastructure of a civil society to dismantle? Pretty scary. But come to think of it that is also happening in States that did not expand Medicare.

      • James Bowen

        Totally agree.

  • howa4x

    We had a family meeting and decided instead of giving gifts we would give back to those less fortunate and skip shopping altogether. in the true spirit of the holiday

    • joe schmo

      Honestly, I actually agree with this incentive. Christmas or any holiday for that matter never used to be so materialistic. My parents got small items such as a book or candy or a toy car or a piece of furniture and little dress for the dolls and doll house. The holidays are not about all this money spent. It’s about being with family, friends and enjoying the season from a religious perspective, and, of course, giving to those more in need:)

      • bckrd1

        it is a method used by corporations to keep us in debt. Then New Years comes along and we are expected to go out and live freedom. Then along comes Valentines, Easter, Mothers Day, Fathers Day, birthdays, etc. It is all a way to keep us in debt.

    • bckrd1

      we’ve been doing that too and it feels good.

  • joe schmo

    Gee, I wonder why….This was also the case in Communist Europe. People could not afford the luxuries. Same today. Has nothing to do with being materialistic.

    You may have noticed how small the packaging for food has gotten. I remember when I visited communist Europe as a child, ice cream bars were smaller when compared with those made in the U.S. Now the same thing is happening here.