Selling the perfect bookshelf to Zoom users

With all the videoconferencing taking place during COVID-19, the business of selling books to people for their backdrop picked up:

Books by the Foot, a service run by the Maryland-based bookseller Wonder Book, has become a go-to curator of Washington bookshelves, offering precisely what its name sounds like it does. As retro as a shelf of books might seem in an era of flat-panel screens, Books by the Foot has thrived through Democratic and Republican administrations, including that of the book-averse Donald Trump. And this year, the company has seen a twist: When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, Books by the Foot had to adapt to a downturn in office- and hotel-decor business—and an uptick in home-office Zoom backdrops for the talking-head class.

The Wonder Book staff doesn’t pry too much into which objective a particular client is after. If an order were to come in for, say, 12 feet of books about politics, specifically with a progressive or liberal tilt—as one did in August—Wonder Book’s manager, Jessica Bowman, would simply send one of her more politics-savvy staffers to the enormous box labeled “Politically Incorrect” (the name of Books by the Foot’s politics package) to select about 120 books by authors like Hillary Clinton, Bill Maher, Al Franken and Bob Woodward. The books would then be “staged,” or arranged with the same care a florist might extend to a bouquet of flowers, on a library cart; double-checked by a second staffer; and then shipped off to the residence or commercial space where they would eventually be shelved and displayed (or shelved and taken down to read)…

Located in Frederick, Wonder Book’s 3-acre warehouse full of 4 million books is a short jaunt from the nation‘s capital. While the company ships nationally, it gets a hefty portion of its business from major cities including Washington. And, over the past two decades, Books by the Foot’s books-as-decor designs have become a fixture in the world of American politics, filling local appetite for books as status symbols, objects with the power to silently confer taste, intellect, sophistication or ideology upon the places they’re displayed or the people who own them…

Another force at work, however, was the rise of the well-stocked shelf as a coveted home-office prop. When workplaces went remote and suddenly Zoom allowed co-workers new glimpses into one another’s homes, what New York Times writer Amanda Hess dubbed the “credibility bookcase” became the hot-ticket item. (“For a certain class of people, the home must function not only as a pandemic hunkering nest but also be optimized for presentation to the outside world,” she wrote.) And while Roberts makes an effort not to infer too much about his clients or ask too many questions about their intent, he did notice a very telling micro-trend in orders he was getting from all across the United States.

A lot could be said about books as status symbols. In certain circles, books imply a certain level of education, curiosity, and acquisition. Books and refinement and culture go together. Just having the books present is meant to impress in the same way a flashy car might be impressive driving down the street or the same way a McMansion looks to impress people passing by with its facade.

Think about the supply side of these books. There are companies that can acquire many many titles for relatively cheap. They can store all of these books until someone is willing to pay a decent price to put those books in their spaces. These books with all of their accumulated knowledge and status are simply another commodity that can be moved around to boost someone’s status when needed. And when COVID-19 ends or video conferencing slows down? The books can be discarded until needed again as a status symbol.

An interesting contrast would be between certain commentators and networks. I have seen at least a few bookshelves behind sports commentators. They often have a few books but also more prominently features sports equipment or trophies. The bookshelf is not just about education; the books are mixed with symbols of achievement or fandom.

Without asking how the books in the backdrop were acquired, viewers or other participants might ask about favorite books or how many books have been read. I have been asked this multiple times in the last few years, whether with bookshelves in my office and at home. It could be interpreted as an invasive question – taken as a challenge about whether the books are just there as status symbols – or provide an opening for the person to explain more about their reading (and the connected education and status) and/or share about books that really matter to them.

Suburbanites, backyard fences, and signaling status

I recently saw a request for users of a nearby park to stay on park property and not go into the yards of neighbors when there to attend sporting events. The particular area in question is surrounded on two sides by homes, one subdivision built roughly five decades ago and one roughly three decades ago. The earlier subdivision has more modest suburban dwellings – roughly 2,000 square feet, two car garages, split-levels, colonials, ranches, most homes with siding – and almost all of the yards backing up to the park have fences. See the image below:

Fences

The more recently constructed homes are larger: 3,500 square feet, a mix of two and three car garages, more brick, stone, and gables. Few of these homes have fences facing the park.

Residents, businesses, and communities use parts of the physical environment to demarcate boundaries. This park sits between several different kinds of communities. Even though it is located in a well-off suburb, there are clear gradations of social status in these dwellings.

With the fences, I wonder if this is a kind of conspicuous consumption on the part of the homeowners with more expensive properties: “We don’t need a fence to be separate from the park.” Indeed, multiple homes have nice patios, tables, and outdoor equipment near the park and very visible. In contrast, the older homes have deeper backyards and more cover – even without a fence. Could this simply be a legacy of a past era where fencing was more common or does it signal something about how suburbanites want to interface with a nearby park?

More broadly, suburbanites have multiple ways to signal their status without actively telling anyone anything. This can range from the facade of their home (with McMansions aiming to impress) to the vehicles parked in the driveway to the landscaping to the size of the lot. And near highly trafficked or public areas, the urge to look good may be hard to resist.

 

The top US cities for Fortune 500 company headquarters, COVID-19 edition

In an article about working remotely, the Wall Street Journal included this graphic about the locations of the headquarters of Fortune 500 companies:

Fortune500HQLocations

This is an interesting topic to raise as more workers are laboring away from the office. What will happen to headquarters?

One option would be that headquarters remain even as organizational workforces scatter. There will always be a need to at least occasionally hold meetings or access resources or project a presence in a major city. Cities would like this as headquarters are a status symbol.

Another option is that headquarters move to locations more central to their workers or more attractive for workers. This is more unlikely but the same factors pushing workers away from major cities – high housing costs, traffic and congestion, density with threats of pandemics – could affect headquarters as well. It could be a big strategic move to follow workers to a city not on the list above.

The effects of either could be big for cities. Consider New York. It is the clear leader in terms of headquarters, it is a leading global city, and it is not just a center for business but also for news, entertainment, the arts, and other spheres. Even if the headquarters stay, the loss of high-status employees hurts. If the headquarters leave or become shells of themselves, there could be a loss of status.

Marketing 101 example: equating pickup trucks to the American way of life

A look at declines in pickup sales for American automakers includes this description of what pickups represent:

“Pickups represent a rugged sense of individualism for many Americans. They are the very definition of America in that they are larger than life like America and can both work and play hard,” said Erich Merkle, U.S. Ford sales analyst.

This is both a concise and bold marketing statement: pickups are the American way of life! The statement ties to multiple big themes that run through American culture: individualism, larger than life, hard work and lots of play. And it is a vehicle that allows the owner to participate in the pervasive driving culture in the United States. And all this just for $35,000 to $50,000 for a new truck!

A truck, like many consumer goods, is not just about functionality but is also a statement about the owners and what they want to be. Buying smartphones, single-family homes, clothing, and more fall into the same process: marketing appeals to our want for what we own to match our personality and/or aspirations. A truck is not just a truck; it is a statement about the driver. It says, “I eat a Prius for lunch” or “I need to do important projects” or “I have the resources to buy a new truck” (among other possible messages).

Then I am reminded that it is just a pickup truck. Vehicles are necessary in many American communities in order to get from Point A to Point B. But, many vehicles may work in order to accomplish regular tasks. If the primary vehicle use is for commuting to work or regular errands such as buying groceries or dropping off and picking up kids, a truck is probably not needed. Some people need trucks for regularly hauling items or for work.

For now, this match between pickups and the American Dream “works.” There are numerous other products that would wish to tie themselves as closely as pickup trucks to the base values of the American Dream. It may not be this way in several decades; perhaps the rugged individualism and freedom will be attached to fleets of electric vehicles that are at everyone’s beck and call. Until something changes, expect to continue to see the marketing pitch that pickups equal the American way of life.

Starbucks as a symbol of wealth in a community

Starbucks is planning more stores in less wealthy neighborhoods:

Starbucks plans to open or remodel 85 stores by 2025 in rural and urban communities across the U.S. Each store will hire local staff, including construction crews and artists, and will have community event spaces. The company will also work with local United Way chapters to develop programs at each shop, such as youth job training classes and mentoring…

Starbucks opened its first community store in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2016, two years after the riots that broke out over the shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer. It has added 13 more locations since then, including stores in Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, New Orleans and Jonesboro, Georgia. Another one will open this spring in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Starbucks estimates the shops have created more than 300 jobs…

Kelly said the stores reflect Starbucks’ core belief in responsible capitalism. The coffee shops are profitable, he said, and have the same menu as regular Starbucks stores…

“I can’t think either of a retailer, especially one that has more of a discretionary, higher-end purchase, being willing to push into neighborhoods and markets that have less purchasing power,” Theodos said. “Starbucks usually appears when a neighborhood has the purchasing power to support it.”

For years, Starbucks has been a brand and presence that signals a wealthier location. With their prices, products, and aesthetics, communities had to have a certain level of resources for Starbucks to locate there. Once the money was there, Starbucks might arrive in droves. (I’m thinking of the number of Starbucks on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.) If payday loan stores and dollar stores help identify poorer locations, Starbucks may be the most common restaurant that signals the opposite.

I am curious about one item of information from the article. The Starbucks executive quoted in the story says the locations are profitable. Does this mean Starbucks avoided these locations for so long even though they could have made money or did something change in the cost equation over time? Some firms would want to expand everywhere to bring in money though others might want to protect their status.

Counterarguments to the claim that people should not waste money on a big house

Economist Robert Shiller argues Americans do not need large houses:

“Big houses are a waste. People are still in a mode of thinking about houses that is kind of 19th century. As we modernize, we don’t need all this space,” Shiller told the Journal…

Shiller said advanced technology has replaced the need for extra space in our homes.

“For example, we don’t need elaborate kitchens, because we have all kinds of delivery services for food. And maybe you don’t need a workshop in your basement, either. You used to have a filing cabinet for your tax information, but now it’s all electronic, so you don’t need that, either. And bookshelves, for people who read a lot. We have electronic books now, so we don’t need bookshelves anymore,” Shiller said.

“Having a big house is a symbol of success, and people want to look successful. People have to know about your achievements. How do you know, really? Who knows what people are doing in their day job? But you do see their house.”

The counterargument for a typical owner of a large house might look like this:

1. What else could be such a worthwhile investment over time? Many people assume their home will appreciate in value and a big home purchased today means not only more space but more money down the road when the home sells.

2. Private space is still important. The kitchen may not be just about cooking. Of the spaces Americans do use in their homes, the kitchen is one. Or the idea of a workshop: there can be public spaces where people could come together to share tools and use common space but how many Americans are ready for that?

3. Shiller may overestimate the rate at which people are willing to get rid of stuff in favor of electronic copies or technology-aided alternatives. Shiller cites paper and books above. But, Americans simply consume a lot, ranging from video games to decor to furniture to electronic gadgets. Don’t they need bigger houses to fit all their stuff?

4. Status symbols matter in American society. A home is a very tangible expression of status, particularly compared to smaller items like watches, smartphones, jewelry, clothing, and other items.

All of these reasons may not be the most efficient or rational but they are a product of decades of social and cultural action and values. For more reading, see an earlier post: “Explaining Why Americans Desire Larger Homes.”

Get creative and sell home and new car together as package deal

Thinking about an earlier post linking new upscale car purchases with suburban gentrification, I had an idea: why not sell more homes and new cars together as a package deal? Here are reasons this could be a good pairing:

  1. Americans like the lifestyle that comes with a single-family home and driving a car. It is particularly important in the suburbs where owning a home and the ability to drive rank high in importance. Put these two big purchases together and sell a whole lifestyle.
  2. Both a home and a car are a status symbol. Pairing the two really provides an opportunity to brand the owner. Would someone want to purchase a McMansion but still drive a two Toyota Tercel or a Pontiac Aztek? Or, retire and downsize to a nice urban condo and keep driving a minivan or an older model SUV? Matching the home and the car at the same time provides a unique opportunity to establish oneself.
  3. I wonder if there are some “efficiencies” in purchasing both at the same time. On the producer side, developers and dealers want to move properties and cars; if selling them together helps, this is a deal. On the buyer side, perhaps they can roll all of the costs together and just pay one lump sum a month for two important items. (Mortgage documents might be hard enough to put together, let alone a joint document rolling together a mortgage and a car loan). Could it all be cheaper for the buyer (or get the sellers/lenders more money in the long run on interest)?

I would guess there are also good reasons this is not done widely. Still, given how much Americans like buying properties and like driving and cars, there may be potential here.

Looking at “The McMansion Effect:” home satisfaction and size of the homeowners’ home

A new study under review looks at how satisfied owners are with owning some of the largest homes in their area:

This finding, Bellet reasons, has to do with how people compare their houses with others in their neighborhood—particularly the biggest ones. In his paper, which is currently under peer review, he looks closely at the construction of homes that are larger than at least 90 percent of the other houses in the neighborhood. By his calculation, if homes in the 90th percentile were 10 percent bigger, the neighbors would be less pleased with their own homes unless those homes grew 10 percent as well. Moreover, the homeowners most sensitive to such shifts are the ones whose houses are in the second-biggest tier, not the ones whose houses are median-sized.

To be clear, having more space does generally lead to people saying they’re more pleased with their home. The problem is that the satisfaction often doesn’t last if even bigger homes pop up nearby. “If I bought a house to feel like I’m ‘the king of my neighborhood,’ but a new king arises, it makes me feel very bad about my house,” Bellet wrote to me in an email.

The largest houses seem to be the ones that all the other homeowners base their expectations on. In neighborhoods where the biggest houses are more modest, Bellet told me, expanding the size of one’s house can be 10 times as satisfying as undertaking such an expansion in a neighborhood where the biggest homes are palatial.

Bellet sketches out an unfulfilling cycle of one-upmanship, in which the owners of the biggest homes are most satisfied if their home remains among the biggest, and those who rank right below them grow less satisfied as their dwelling looks ever more measly by comparison. He estimates that from 1980 to 2009, the size of the largest 10 percent of houses increased 1.4 times as fast as did the size of the median house. This means that the reference point many people have for what constitutes a big home has shifted further out of reach, just as many other lifestyle reference points have shifted in an age of pronounced wealth inequality.

Read the working paper here.
Three quick thoughts:
  1. The term McMansion in the paper seems to refer simply to the largest homes. At least a few of the homes are not likely McMansions since the term is much more complex than just referring to homes with a large amount of square feet. Is the big home architecturally sound? Is it a teardown replacing a smaller home? Is it less of an issue of the single home and more an issue of sprawl and excessive consumption? Calling all big homes McMansions does not add much to helping understand what exactly is going on with large homes. Not all large homes are made alike or may be as satisfying. It may, however, add sizzle to the title: “The McMansion Effect” sounds good.
  2. I would like to see more research that addresses the issue of homeowners comparing their homes to others around them. This paper suggests satisfaction is linked to nearby comparisons. How far does this geography extend – walking distance? Half a mile? 2 miles? Within the same municipality? Compared to what is seen on TV?
  3. This sounds similar to a recent argument about the “Dream Hoarders,” the group just below the wealthiest people who have status anxiety about keeping up. Here, those just below the biggest homes in the neighborhood can feel worse. Is it the largest houses that are the problem or the people in the next to largest houses who then long to have the biggest house. If only we could control the pesky human tendency to compare ourselves to people who have just a little more than us…

Linking nicer cars to a suburb on the rise

From the Australian suburbs: one insider suggests seeing nicer cars in driveways signals good prospects for the suburban community.

The gentrification of the driveway happens before the gentrification of a suburb, says the boss of a data analytics company.

Upmarket vehicles beginning to appear in the carports and garages of houses is often a forerunner of a suburb on the rise, as renovators move in...

When more models such as a BMW X5 or an Audi SUV begin appearing in the driveway of houses and apartments in particular suburban streets, it is a reliable predictor of a suburb undergoing gentrification and becoming much more popular with renovators. Extra investment in community infrastructure often followed, and there was a broad flow on to higher property prices…

He said households who were taking out a loan for $500,000 to buy a rundown home in an up-and-coming area were often also purchasing a $30,000 to $40,000 car to fit the aspirational lifestyle.

The article chalks this up to a big data insight as bringing together multiple pieces of information helped reveal this relationship. I can see how this new information might help investors but it is less clear how this would help residents or local governments.

More broadly, this gets at something my dad always said: look at the cars in driveways, on the street, or in parking spots and it gives you a sense of the people who live there. In societies that prize cars, such as in the United States and Australia and particularly their suburbs, a vehicle becomes an important social marker. The one-to-one relationship might not always work as some people buy more expensive cars than their housing might indicate and vice versa (recall the stories of millionaires driving old reliable cars). Yet, on the whole, people of different social classes drive different vehicles in varying states of repair. Hence, various brands aim at different segments of the market. Famously, General Motors did this early in the 20th century with five different car lines to appeal to different kinds of buyers.

UPDATE: I probably did not contribute to this upward trend with long-term ownership of a Toyota Echo. But, it looked good for its age.

 

Scrambling to fill empty suburban HQs

Chicago looks at development efforts involving several large suburban corporate campuses that lost their famous tenants to the big city:

For many of these suburbs, the solution isn’t to replace one corporate behemoth with another. Instead, they’re dicing up the land for different uses and radically changing the face of suburbia for decades to come — just as the mammoth corporate enclaves and shopping malls once did. In Oak Brook, for example, an unexpected entity pursued the 34 undeveloped acres at McDonald’s. “As soon as we found out they were leaving, we asked if they wanted to donate it,” says Laure Kosey, executive director of the Oak Brook Park District. “They said, ‘Good idea, but we’re going to put it up for sale.’ ”

So the park district bought it. Residents of Oak Brook, a village that levies no property tax, took the unusual step of taxing themselves by voting for a bond referendum that covers the $15.8 million price tag, with $2 million left over for creating soccer fields and spaces for other recreational activities. The deal closed in December with the promise that the land won’t turn into anything other than a park.

A separate McDonald’s property a few miles from the main campus, next to the Oakbrook Center mall, was sold to Houston-based developer Hines last summer. It will likely become a mix of apartment buildings, office space, and shops — what the developer has called a “new village center.” It’s a similar tack to the one Schaumburg is taking after it was rattled in 2016 by the loss of Motorola Solutions’ headquarters, which moved to the West Loop. Chicago-based UrbanStreet Group bought 225 of the site’s 322 acres and intends to remake the parcel into a mini community with houses and apartments, a retirement home, a driving range, a park, and sidewalk cafés…

Nearby Hoffman Estates has already lost one giant — AT&T, which began vacating its 150-acre satellite campus in 2014 for several smaller sites in Chicago and other suburbs — and doesn’t exactly have a sure thing in another: the hobbled Sears Holdings Corporation, which is fighting to stave off liquidation. New Jersey–based Somerset Development is turning the AT&T site into what it calls an indoor downtown, essentially a 21st-century Bio-Dome that packs offices, restaurants, entertainment spots, conference centers, and hotels under a massive roof. It’s possible a Montessori school, public library, and other communal spaces will be weaved into the site, just as the developer did in New Jersey, where it revamped the huge Bell Labs property…

State representative Fred Crespo, a Democrat from the village, is floating a so-called Big Empties bill, which is being redrafted after it was introduced during the last session of the General Assembly. It would provide hefty incentives, including relief on up to half of the property taxes, for developers that make over old HQs larger than one million square feet.

The redevelopment plans sound like they have promise. The goal is to reduce the ways that headquarters are often set apart from the surrounding land by reincorporating the properties into the fabric of the suburb as well as introduce a variety of uses that will generate more around-the-clock activity. Big office campuses and/or buildings can be impressive displays but they may not contribute much to local community and social life.

On the other hand, I wonder how to weigh these changes against the loss of status that can come with the move of major companies out of the community. Particularly for edge cities, suburbs with millions of square feet of retail and office space and often located near major highways (like Oak Brook, Schaumburg, and Hoffman Estates), a Fortune 500 company helps establish the suburb’s reputation. New mixed-use neighborhoods may be attractive but they don’t have the same oomph as saying the suburb is home to Sears or McDonald’s or Mondelez.

I, for one, will be very interested to see how this all plays out within twenty years. These properties offer unique opportunities for established wealthier suburbs to do something unique. However, the redevelopment plans could go awry or the what is constructed may not be that interesting or the suburb’s status may never quite recover.