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Yesterday’s Consumer vs. Today

In this blog, we talk a lot about how the landscape of commerce is changing. This change is directly related to the diversification of the consumer. Businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to adapt to market demands. It becomes more and more volatile, as big companies continue to emerge with breakthroughs. This is both in the product and service sectors. Another challenge facing small to medium-sized businesses as well, is finding new markets that would receive their products. Limited access to resources also aggravates this situation. Such as time constraints, labor, sourcing and funding, which all pose challenges of their own to growing businesses. 

But why exactly is the landscape changing? An obvious reason would be time. After all, the only thing that we can guarantee is that things will change. Our ability to adapt to changes is what characterizes us. And consumer behavior dictates this shift in market demands. Consumers today are far more different than those of the past, we know that. In the middle of the narratives surrounding the modern consumer, we need to look at what differentiates them. We also need to look at how exactly have these behaviors changed? 

A Diverse Consumer Base with Diverse Needs

Demographics are a central figure in understanding the differences in consumer behavior. For instance, there has been a seismic shift in population growth within the United States over the past 50 years. It has become even more heterogeneous than before. The Pew Research Center reports that Millennials will account for the largest adult generation in 2019, outnumbering Baby Boomers by at least a million. Millennials are the most diverse generation in US history. Incumbent generations are expected to contribute to this diversity even further. This rise of newer generations also means that that younger consumers, such as myself, have a more varied and broader set of needs. 

The American Dream

During the 19th and 20th century, Americans moved to cities to pursue work in the industrial sector, such as factory work. After World War II, families left cities and settled within the suburbs, eventually giving rise to what we know as the American Dream. The narrative that emerged after the war was one of recovery from the Great Depression– that nothing will ever stand in our way and nobody will oppress us ever again. Americans wanted financial and career stability. They want the marriage and they want kids. Usually a dog, a car, and a house with a porch and a white picket fence are desirable too. All of a sudden, working-class Americans could afford these.

Brick-and-Mortar Business

After the Second World War, this was the demographic transformation that initiated the retail landscape that we are familiar with today. The rise of brick and mortar department stores (also known as “the big box store”) with Walmart and Target during the sixties, and the Sears Catalog. 

The brick and mortar business model was effective in cornering the suburban market. It perfectly complemented the need for a car because one was one was sitting conveniently out in some parking lot or another. In an interview with NPR, historian Marc Levinson said that “The big-box made shopping into a family experience. Mom and dad and the kids all piled into the car, they went out to this big store, and they could spend several hours there because there was, by the standards of the day, an enormous amount of merchandise.” 

Individualism

The American Dream is perpetrated through individualism. This is the narrative that if you want something and work hard enough to get it, you will have it. It is the idea that you can reach your full potential without the barriers constructed by previous civilizations. This is regardless of where you come from. This created an image of an America that became known to the world as “the Land of Milk and Honey”, fat with optimism where the grass was always greener and the land was abundant with opportunity. This is the image that attracts people all over the world to its shores. The image that a vision that you can be anything you want and Lady Liberty will provide.

Consumers would eventually have the option of TV shopping, HSN and QVC, where consumers could place an order through the landline and it would be shipped to their doorstep, all the while big box stores still prevailed. This notion went on for many more decades to come until the internet came in full force and Millennials started becoming adults. 

Serial Scapegoats

Your writer is a millennial. And as someone born in the 90s, I spent most of my childhood during the early 2000’s, at the cusp of a digital revolution. I remember that it was clunky transition– dial-up internet, 8-bit computer games, the advent of texting and many, many iterations of mobile phones. But it was this transformation in the tech atmosphere that would contribute to our spending habits.

In the reports surrounding the millennial consumer generation, the overall narrative is that they are entitled and privileged. Older generations, who are experiencing a “mid-career slump” look at them disdainfully, branding them as narcissistic, holding a vision of the future that is bright with optimism with the promise of better tomorrows. Because we became adults in the 21st century– a century that is defined by multi-industry breakthroughs that make it more convenient for us to live, it is easy to make Millennials the scapegoats for dying models of the retail industry.

Is it so disdainful to want convenience? Does wanting convenience make millennials privileged for wanting to not have to physically go to a department store after working three jobs? Is the demand for convenience exclusive to one generation?

The Millennial Mindset

Is it narcissistic of millennials to want to rent apartments instead of owning houses? To demand more sustainable modes of transportation instead of relying on fuel-powered cars because they are #woke on the effects of environmental degradation? The fact that millennials are buying fewer houses and cars doesn’t mean that they don’t want houses and cars, it’s because they can’t afford them. The Federal Reserve supports this statement, finding that the decreased rate in homeownership is consistent with lower income of Millennials.

The department store stagnation, all together, is a more complex discussion which cannot only be attributed to one exclusive consumer demographic. The rise of on-demand sales models of online purchasing including subscription models such as Hello Fresh and Blue Apron, among many others, are major contributing factors in this regard that every American consumer participates in.

The American Dream is Changing

It’s not that millennials reject the ideology of the American Dream. The American Dream is not dead, it is changing. The principles of the past no longer apply to new problems that can only be addressed with solutions created for the future. Principles only apply if you are still working within the world that those principles helped create. We no longer live in that world.

It is 2019, many of us are in our 30’s, still paying off student loans and it is a crisis. In fact, it is a $1.5 trillion crisis. Inflation rates and cost of living skyrocketed yet wages remain the same. We are spending hundreds and thousands of dollars on an education only to earn a living that pays $40,000 annually.

Adopting Digitalization For the Future

And yet we are accused for the extinction of department stores, diamonds, the housing market, and the doorbell industry. By texting “Here”, and Hooters, the pillars of the American Dream. We have become the brand of narcissism for taking selfies and killing full-time jobs by opting for side-gigs and flexibility. They say we are serial killers for wanting convenience over traditional systems.

So is it any wonder that we are so eager to dismantle the infrastructure that was built for the architecture of yesterday? The same infrastructure that put us here in the first place. It is a system that tells us that we deserve suffering for wanting any more than mere survival. Is it a privilege to want more affordable, accessible healthcare, a nice place to live that we can pay for, a cab to take us home after working 3 jobs, and maybe an iced coffee to cool us down?

What does the new American Dream look like? I don’t know. But it’s none of this. Maybe an affordable apartment, financial stability, accessible healthcare that doesn’t cost an arm, a leg, 2 kidneys and half a liver. Also, electric cars and renewable energy, so that we still have a planet to live on because you know, climate crisis. We were promised rising wages, the house with a porch and a white picket fence and the realities of financial stability, instead we got student debt, an economy that is crippling in volatility and 280 characters, and that’s nothing to live on.

Written by
Victoria Billones

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