Missing the collective effervescence of Christmas shopping this year

Americans like shopping. And this year, even amid COVID-19, the shopping will go on. But, it will take a different form for many as the busy stores and shopping malls will be replaced by online shopping and shopping trips intended to avoid contact with people.

There are two components to shopping at Christmas time. First, Americans generally favor consumerism and can make commodities out of lots of things. Second, shopping can involve being around other people. In a large society where private lives are the norm, shopping near people in an excited holiday atmosphere feels like being part of something bigger. Even if you have no interactions with anyone else outside of your shopping group, simply being in the same time and place can be exciting.

Just as religious rituals can produce collective effervescence according to sociologist Emile Durkheim, so too can Christmas shopping. It may be based on consumerism, have no touch of the transcendent, and involve no direct social interaction with other people. Yet, shopping at Christmas is a different kind of experience than shopping for different kinds of items at different times of the year.

Shopping online produces no such collective effervescence. A person and a screen. The social energy is limited. Of course, one could head to social media to share their online shopping exploits. But, it is not the same as being physically near to other people in a space designed to push you toward Christmas cheer and more spending.

Live the American Dream in a $180k, 375 square foot tiny home

Tiny houses could provide needed cheap housing and upgraded models might also appeal to people. Here is an example of a higher-end model:

https://www.yahoo.com/news/180-000-tiny-home-outfitted-173504352.html

David Latimer of New Frontier Design is creating tiny homes that are more luxurious and more expensive than most you’d find on the market today. His most recent model, the Escher, starts at $180,000 and is designed to fit a family of six full time. Latimer calls this “the future family home.”…

The Escher is unlike most tiny homes, nearing $200,000 and including high-end features. But Latimer said that doesn’t make this model any less of a tiny house.

“Minimalism means different things for different people,” Latimer said. “The bottom line is that downsizing is a tremendous life adjustment and sacrifice for anybody. This tiny house is still a minimalistic lifestyle. It’s still a tiny home.”…

“I believe micro-housing is going to be a substantial part of the future of residential housing,” Latimer said. “Millenials and Gen Z are going to live this way. I would bet my life on this. Micro housing will allow people to live out the American dream.”

I am not surprised there is a perceived market for more expensive tiny houses. At a basic level, perhaps this is just selling the same products to different parts of the market: some people want to pay less for a tiny house, others will pay more. Indeed, from what I can gather about who moves into or at least talks publicly about moving into tiny houses, it looks like there are some educated people with some resources who want tiny houses with upgrades.

More broadly, I am not sure how a more expensive house fits into “the tiny house movement.” Downsizing and having a cheaper home are often connected to anti-consumerist motives and behavior. Some people make the choice to acquire a tiny house in order to move away from having too many items or fixating on a large home or being so financially committed. Does a luxury tiny house try to have it both ways?

If this kind of tiny house – small but still nearly $200,000 – is going to become part of the American Dream, the definition of the American Dream may need to change. For decades now, the American Dream involves owning a single-family home, probably in the suburbs. The Escher could indeed technically fulfill this – provide a single-family home in the suburbs – but it is very different in substance. If anything motivates people to make this the embodiment of the American Dream, it may be financial realities rather than aspirations for a simpler, downsized American Dream. In other words, expensive housing markets and debt may push people toward more luxurious tiny homes rather than a true desire to ditch the big showy house for a high-status small house.

America is #1, self-storage space edition

Americans need extra space for all of their stuff and the self-storage industry has the solution:

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

It was in Texas that self-storage originated, in the 1960s. The industry has flourished since then, and the United States now has 2.5 billion rentable square feet, at least 90 percent of such space in the world; over the same period, the average size of an American single-family home nearly doubled, and the average number of occupants fell by a quarter. This suggests that self-storage was not an inevitable convenience but something else, perhaps an indicator of national psychopathology…

Millennials, it is often reported, are uninterested in their boomer parents’ abundant accumulated possessions. Might this hurt the storage industry? They also have the highest storage use of any generation, with one fifth of households. (Millennials, and city dwellers, are also likeliest to choose the inscrutable survey response of having “personally experienced” “living in their units.”) Another idly theorized threat to the storage industry is the success of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The idea seems dubious: consumer storage use recently reached 10 percent of U.S. households, and if anything threatens the business, it would be the pandemic, which appears to have spawned vacancies and depressed rents. It is plausible, however, that a number of Americans attempted a Kondo purge—getting rid of possessions that failed to spark joy, often thanking them for their service before relinquishing them—but wound up storing those things. Since Kondo’s sensibility derives from both Zen’s ideal of nonattachment and Shinto’s respect for the animate dignity of the “inanimate” world, it would be an acute irony for these objects to become imprisoned, like the diverse species of Japanese undead, in a state of irresolution.

Even as Americans have the largest new houses on average in the world and may purchase these homes to store their stuff, many need even more space. There are multiple reasons for this: an emphasis on consumerism; difficulty in parting with objects; lots of land for self-storage as well as relatively low costs for storage; disposable income. Kicking the acquisition cycle can be hard to do.

Two additional thoughts: some argue Americans consume to show off or display their status. But, using self-storage is truly a private act. If items are stored there, they cannot be at your home or in your yard or on hand to use.

Second, if only 10 percent of Americans are using self-storage, there is more money to be made! Imagine a country where tiny houses become more normal but people cannot part with all of their goods and need to store them somewhere. Or, as noted above, Baby Boomers cannot interest their family in all they have accumulated and resale stores and markets are flooded with too many items. Or, some fancy self-storage system where drones find and deliver goods when owners want them.

Advertising yourself through your vehicle

What does your car say about you? It can say a lot according to one Washington police department:

RichlandPDcars

The emphasis here is on limiting exposure to crime. Put a lot of information on your car, people might see it and take advantage.

But, this goes against what Americans argue is a feature of consumerism: the products purchased plus their customization and deployment reflects individuals and their personality. Americans do not just buy cars to get from one place to another. Instead, what model and trim and color buyers select reflects something about them. The pick-up truck reflects rugged individualism. The Toyota Prius reflects different sensibilities as does the Nissan Versa or the Subaru Outback. And then owners can modify the vehicle in a myriad of ways, including adding stickers or decals or a vanity plate to the back. And driving is essential to the American way of life.

Not all information given in public will lead to a crime. Of course, the tweet above does not cover all of the information one could add to their car. This includes messages about particular religions (think Coexist or fish emblems), political bumper stickers, and sports teams, just to name a few.

Treating suburban communities as another consumer good to choose among, Part Two

With the New York Times sharing suburban communities to choose among, I argue this could have long-term consequences for how suburbanites think about their community and social life. In short: treat suburbs like objects to consume and suburbs and suburbanites will struggle to form, develop, and maintain community. Here is why:

woman picking wine in store

Photo by Iuliyan Metodiev on Pexels.com

  1. Suburban community is often anchored in moral minimalism. With an attitude of leave each other alone, community is relatively shallow. The emphasis on each resident making the best choice for them could hinder efforts to build community. Consumerism encourages individual choices and often says less about and provides fewer opportunities for collective action.
  2. Making a choice among places of where to live could encourage people to more easily move away from places and/or limit their investment into each community. Purchase one suburb, throw it away when it no longer works for you or no longer meets expectations or another looks more attractive. Suburbs can be picked up and discarded at will, limiting commitment from residents and community members.
  3. Consumerism works through consumers making choices based on the resources they have available. This sorts people based on resources and makes it easier to justify different outcomes – and inequality –  by what resources people had coming in (which can be the result of social and individual factors). For example, one historian highlighted the shift in the 1960s from language about segregating by race or ethnicity to economic resources and social class.
  4. Consumer goods need to be differentiated from other competing consumer goods. The sort of analysis from the New York Times – fairly common in real estate sections – can put a spotlight on a few New York area suburbs and it is very difficult to provide an overview of all suburbs. While suburbs do indeed have unique characters, they also share similar traits compared to other places. Yet, for each of the suburbs highlighted, there are dozens of other suburbs with similar characteristics as well as other unique features. Going even further, trumpeting a few suburbs only might push more residents there while depriving other suburbs of possible residents. Highlighting particular features of places can reinforce statuses and traits and encourage agglomerations of both amenities and a lack of resources. In the long run, this pits suburbs against each other when they actually have multiple common interests and residents need particular services and options.

Articulating a different conception of social life beyond consumers making choices and could be more productive in the long run for nurturing the involvement of residents, deeper social connections, and stronger suburban communities. As I have heard said by multiple scholars, consumers take while citizens benefit as well as have responsibilities to others and the whole.

Treating suburban communities as another consumer good to choose among, Part One

A recent New York Times article made the case for why prospective suburbanites might choose to live in specific desirable communities in the region. Many suburbs have particular characters and ways they differentiate themselves from other suburbs.

family doing shopping in the grocery store

Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

Yet, this is an consumeristic approach to suburban communities. Does the typical suburbanite look at all the possible options and then select one that meets specific criteria? I doubt it. Here are a few of the factors that likely come into play:

1. Resources. How much money do they have for housing? This is a key sorting mechanism.

2. Information from social networks. What do people they know say about a community?

3. Quality of local schools and other local amenities and features (parks, crime, noise, density, family-friendly aspects, etc.).

4. Distance to work/commuting distance. The average commute is just under half an hour so staying within a particular radius and avoiding traffic congestion for held or potential jobs matters.

5. The status of the community. Which ones are known favorably (and not)? If you were moving to the New York City region and knew little about the suburban options, which communities would emerge?

6. Proximity to family if present in the area. Why move to Montclair if family members all live in New Canaan?

Even with all of these factors, it may take time of living in a suburb before a resident gets a sense of what is unique, different, and/or desirable.

Tomorrow, I will consider what this approach of searching for the best suburb could lead to.

Trying to kick the consumption habit while living in a tiny house

One scholar studying people who lived in tiny houses found that a smaller space did not necessarily mean to having less stuff:

Tiny houses are often put forward as a more sustainable housing option. They are certainly a potential check on the continued pursuit of bigger houses and greater consumption of energy, building materials and so forth. Yet reducing your environmental impact by going tiny is not as simple as some have claimed.

I came across several tiny households that were using external storage spaces for items that wouldn’t fit in the home, for example. Referred to as a “dirty secret” by one interviewee, another explained her desire to keep items from her previous home in case she changed her mind about tiny living.

Over half of my interviewees had a “one in, one out” mentality, where they would throw away or donate one item to make space for something new. As one dweller in her late 30s, who lives in a state-of-the-art home in a caravan park in rural New Hampshire, said, “I have a TJ Maxx addiction. I still go out every couple months and buy a bunch of stuff then come home and decide which things to get rid of.”

Regardless of how tiny living is marketed by the enthusiasts, sustainability was not a major driver for most of the participants in my study. Instead it was almost an afterthought. It seemingly takes more than changing the size of a home to change the mentality of the people who live inside.

One reason (among many) that Americans live in large houses is in order to store all their stuff. Having a smaller dwelling does not necessarily mean that the resident will get rid of all their stuff or reduce their consumption. Because there are so many options for storing stuff, it can be easy to keep all that stuff. (Side note: I could imagine future communities of tiny houses or tiny house living quarters surrounding larger community facilities like kitchens and entertaining spaces that include storage facilities or warehouses on site.)

Furthermore, the American economy needs people to buy things and American culture celebrates buying more (and buying bigger things). There are occasional calls to curb consumption – or at least pare down the number of things one has – yet they put limited dents in the overall patterns

Perhaps the bigger change will come over time. Imagine someone who has lived in a tiny house for a decade or more. Will they still keep their stuff in a storage unit wondering if they will move to a larger dwelling? Will they learn to live without all that stuff and get rid of it? Or, imagine a kid who grows up in a tiny house. Maybe they will be less inclined to have a lot of items around given their familiarity with smaller spaces and the reduced availability of items.

McMansions intrude on supersized ski resort

A look at a busy ski resort in Vermont references the supersized houses along the slopes:

Stratton’s 11 lifts move 33,928 skiers upward per hour, up from 21,078 in 1995—far more efficient than the child-eating, circa-’70s rope tow at Snow Valley. Quicker than expected, I was aloft, cozily wedged into the six-person chair, thrust into exhilaration. Evoking the rare weeks my family had skied in the Rocky Mountains, it all seemed blissfully familiar until our chair zipped past McMansions scattered up the hill—jarring, very 2020, real estate intrusions.

Add ski resort to the collection of consumer goods and experiences that have become supersized. While I do not think linking McMansions and skiing will have the same resonance or reach as McMansions and SUVs, the general idea is the same: Americans want to consume and bigger is better.

At the same time, does the view of a McMansion disturb a ski lift ride or a trip down a hill? In general, skiing aims to put people back into nature. The soundscape should be peaceful. The slopes can be challenging but enjoyable. The atmosphere should be relaxed. The focus of the article is on the larger crowds – but this also hints at the increased level of development. If skiing is so popular, what developer would pass up the opportunity to plant McMansions nearby?

Contrasting tiny weddings to reduced interest in McMansions and SUVs

I first read about “tiny weddings” yesterday – and the lede suggested they are the opposite of consuming big items:

Big SUVs, McMansions and the term “bigger is better” are all things that used to connote living your best life. Now, consumers are shifting to the opposite end of that spectrum, including those who want to tie the knot.

Tiny weddings (aka microweddings) are a growing trend for couples who want to have their special day with less worry and spend less money (think $2,000 to $3,000) at a time when annual reports like those from The Knot state that the national average cost of a wedding is $33,931. The smaller ideal also comes at a time when families are picking up less of the tab for the big day and student-loan debt is infringing on wedding dreams and goals. The tiny wedding limits the numbers of attendees. The average wedding in the U.S. has 126 guests, according to the WeddingWire 2019 Newlywed Report.

To some degree, McMansions and SUVs are back. And linking the two might be in vogue for a long time.

But there is a bigger question at play here: is the suggestion correct that Americans are now less interested in purchasing big items? I have heard this for years: Americans are past the garishness and ostentatious purchases of the 1980s through the early 2000s. They learned their lessons about too much debt, too much emphasis on material objects, and the impact on social life. They are now more interested in consuming experiences than items. They want to live simpler, less cluttered lives. Tiny houses are in, McMansions out.

At the same time, with an economy that slowly recovered after the housing bubble of the late 2000s is this true in regards to SUVs and McMansions? Both are expensive, particularly compared to other options in their categories. They both have their critics and these criticisms have dogged them for decades. Yet, both seem to be thriving among the sectors of the buying public that like them. Both appear to have a future. If Americans continue to desire single-family homes and there are still forces arranged to push them toward large homes, McMansions will continue.

Millions of dollars flying out of the King of Prussia Mall

Recently walking through the King of Prussia Mall at Christmas time, I was struck by multiple sights: the variety of shoppers, the Christmas cheer and decoration, and the number of possible activities in and around the mall. Yet, none of these could compete with my biggest realization that day: just how much money was flowing in and out of the mall.

The King of Prussia Mall is one of the biggest in the United States , is in the top 10 of malls by sales, and it helps anchor an edge city roughly twenty miles northwest of Philadelphia. It is a site to behold, particularly after an addition a few years ago that connected the two halves of the mall and added a new row of upscale retailers.

But, the biggest goal of the mall is to generate sales and profit. And it looked like the mall was doing just fine on the day I visited. Many shoppers had bags on their arms or strollers. Multiple stores I went into, ranging from smaller retailers to large department stores, had people perusing the racks and shelves. The type of stores at the mall and the people aiming to go into them also hint at the money consumers were willing to spend. With each American estimated to spend a little over $900 on Christmas gifts, the King of Prussia is a good place to spread that cash around.

The commercial activity around Christmas at this mall also hints at the future of shopping malls in the United States. Some malls might last longer than people think, particularly those located in wealthier areas and with a concentration of wealthier stores and a variety of opportunities (retail ranging from Dick’s Sporting Goods to Nordstrom’s to Primark and including restaurants and entertainment). The King of Prussia Mall is a destination mall, likely drawing visitors from a wider region than most malls.

And with all that money flowing around the mall that day, most people looked happy to be spending and enjoying the sights. I suppose those with fewer resources or anti-capitalists might not go to such an upscale mall in the first place but the whole scene looked like an advertisement for capitalism: spend freely in an impressive mall at Christmas time. What could be more American than that?