In my last post, I wrote about a phenomenon I initially labeled “Fucked Up Retail.” I heard a lot of response to the post, most of them intelligent, some of them critical (and, well, some just silly). The responses led me to write more and try to offer some rationale for what I’m talking about. I felt the smart criticisms warranted a follow-up post, or perhaps several.
For starters, I want to step away from calling this “fucked up retail.” Why? I think there is something frustrating about the retail spaces I’m thinking of. But I don’t think “fucked up” captures the nature of the frustration just right. One tack would be to defend “fucked up” as idiomatic, maybe ironic, perhaps just playful. On the other hand, I don’t want to get into that. Besides, I’ve actually got bigger issues in mind about retail and consumerism that I’d like to elaborate on (believe it or not, I am not some random blogger who simply chooses curious subjects to write about…well, okay, sometimes).
The common thread in so many arguments I’ve heard about the retailers I’m describing is a kind of irritation approaching anger. A critique of consumerism is so widespread and prevalent today it almost seems to nearly rival the impulse towards consumerism in the first place. What’s this all about? Where does the anger come from? It’s as if half of America seems to be working on selling stuff, while the other half is outraged that those people would even try.
I also find it interesting—though often disappointing—that despite its ubiquity in our everyday life, few people have much of a frame of reference for understanding retail, how it works and how these spaces might operate. This is understandable. And yet, there are no shortage of assumptions about how these places work. The typical responses to any and all retail space: They only want me to spend more money here. They will manipulate me. They are creating unnecessary desires.
Is all retail the same? I adamantly argue: no.
As an aside: if you’re complaining there’s “nothing new” about the form of retail I’m describing, you’re partly correct—but only partly. After all, retail has been around for a long time—so has consumerism, product markups, marketing, the problem of luxury, the problem of leisure, pricing, the act of shopping, consumer need creation, consumer desire creation and many other problems and concerns. Further, economic exchange predates all of these things, and may even be foundational to all social relationships (if you believe Marcel Mauss, and I tend to). My purpose is not to spot a trend and tell you “what’s new” or, for that matter, tell you where to shop. My purpose is to describe one corner of the world where people seem to lack a critical frame of reference. And by critical, I don’t mean you’ll need to deconstruct or smash retail. I mean to call awareness to an otherwise implicit realm of the human cultural world.
In terms of newness, the dimensions of these problems keeps shifting, but rarely if ever allow for something entirely new and novel. Besides, if new retail is all we’re interested in, then the only real goal is probably to look out for the next horrible Walmart-like monstrosity with the capacity to strike fear in our hearts and maybe provide another reason to nostalgically lament how things used to be. Instead, I want to look at the shifts, transitions and distinctions among and between retail forms.
A retail space is never merely functional, nor is it always simply an extension of capitalism or the capitalist disciplines of advertising and marketing. This is neither a defense nor an apology for retail, but a clarification. Retail spaces existed long before the contemporary capitalist economy emerged. Additionally, many different expressions of economic activity and economic logic persist today, and many of these do not fit neatly into any ideal category of capitalism (see, for example, Gibson-Graham 2006)
Retail spaces are sites for economic and financial activity. But they are always also cultural products, and inhabit a wide variety of distinctive forms.
A number of would-be critics jumped to assumptions about why my categorization was inaccurate, and even suggested alternatives. Here’s why they’re wrong.
For one, the previously labeled “fucked up retailers” are not like antique shops, exactly because they are new, focused on new products and much more conscious of how these objects relate to one another. Antique and vintage shops can be picky in how they assemble the products they choose to re-sell, but exist within a wider market of selling and reselling old products. They are also enmeshed in the constant question of what is considered “vintage” or “antique.” These are cultural categories and forms that constantly shift and change, which is a fascinating and altogether different subject unto itself.
Second, these are not “hobby” businesses. That label suggests a non-serious, perhaps non-profit and non-business focused endeavor. Also interesting, but not my point. Further, “hobby” is an actual Internal Revenue Service classification, which is very particular and has relevance for income tax deductions (The IRS poses actual questions, however subjective sounding, such as: “Does the time and effort put into the activity indicate an intention to make a profit?” (No = hobby) “Does the taxpayer depend on income from the activity?” (again, No = hobby)). While many visitors to the stores I’m writing about question whether these spaces are viable businesses, the people who run these stores seem dedicated. This is a kind of project for them. More importantly, they have a clear intention with these places that is much more meaningful and poignant than “hobby.” Outside of the tax code, “hobby” suggests a purely leisure time or pleasure-focused pursuit, ancillary to life. Hobby is about escape from life. The now classic sense of hobby in America has shifted too—away from the archetypal realm of model airplanes, toy railroads, baseball cards and the like—as children and young people divide their attention today with video games, computers and other digital entertainments (does that make the giant retailer GameStop a hobby shop?).
Third, these retailers are distinctly different from massive business organizations focused on volume and velocity, like (especially) Urban Outfitters. This is actually a quite interesting distinction, which deserves more attention.
Slowness is actually embodied in the retail spaces I’m thinking of: in how they’re set up, how they present and arrange objects for sale and how they categorize their products. If you closely compared the way Urban Outfitters anticipates product volume and velocity—through well-concealed storage, and merchandising racks that make it easy to hang, fold and restock—with a store like New High Mart in Los Feliz, Los Angeles—often carrying just a handful of a single item, and frequently arranged or presented in inconvenient and nonconventional ways—you can start to recognize this difference.
(above: New High Mart)
(above: Urban Outfitters. Compare the repetition of product in the two places.)
The distinction becomes much more deeply apparent when you move behind-the-scenes and compare supply chains. Urban Outfitters has a centralized ordering system, whose inventory is tied directly to sales register numbers. Stores like New High Mart have to rely on making educated guesses about what to restock, and the turnover of products may seem almost random. Supply chains are then embodied and inscribed in retail spaces.
This also points to an important dimension of a frustrating retailer, which is time. Over time, these retailers continually shift and change product offering, sometimes in unexpected ways. So while you could argue that they are “unsophisticated” because they rely more on an intuitive sense of what the market wants, you would be missing out on their bigger opportunity to frustrate and gently confuse their audience. The scale of a retail operation like Urban Outfitters inhibits this type of non-profit motive behavior. Month after month, year after year, Urban Outfitters looks and feels remarkably similar. Their product offering is relatively predictable, especially when compared to the unpredictable nature of a store like New High Mart.
One more difference has to do with the seemingly random assortment of little things, knick-knacks, books, noisemakers and other objects that populate these spaces. At Urban Outfitters, books become an ironic joke. So do vinyl records. A pathetic Charlie Brown Christmas Tree, though a hot seller, also doubles as a humorous riff on everyday life, as would-be pranksters thumb their nose at conventional holiday traditions. Even when we embrace the meaningful nostalgia of Charlie Brown, some element of irony always persists in these objects. But this is not necessarily the case with the accessory products and objects at stores like Ooga Booga. Here, I might find a Mike Kelley “Little Friend Toy.” These objects, even when ironic or humorous, do not supercede some “real” purpose of coming to this store. They are its purpose.
Now, I’m not going to defend all Ooga Booga products, such as the Bless Nerd Glasses with Beach print. Perhaps the product is mere nonsense, or perhaps you consider it hipster irony. But I think you’d be hard-pressed not to look at this object and consider its purpose. This touches on a critique of the amount of “stuff” that pervades our daily existence. What is all this stuff, in our homes, overflowing our environment? Do we need all of it? Is it of any real value?
Okay, getting off my high horse now and that critique of “stuff,” let’s say we disregard the meaningful distinctions between objects. Still, the contexts where they are found differ. Let’s place the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree among the ironic knick-knacks category of Urban Outfitters, a mere supplement to their “real business” model focused on relatively inexpensive contemporary clothing. And then compare that placement to the Nerd Glasses at Oooga Booga, where art objects are central concerns. This brings to light another key difference. The central conversation of Ooga Booga is about the problems of contemporary life, while the focus of Urban Outfitters is on providing essentially functional solutions to everyday life.
Perhaps more eyes rolling. But there’s actually something substantive here. That’s because retail is a discipline. And that discipline is organized around the creation of the “category.” Category Management is not just a fancy term, it’s an actual technical expertise. Urban Outfitters uses it. Ooga Booga, I’m going to assume, does not. And herein lies a key difference between the two stores. Changes at Urban Outfitters are motivated within the categories: this type of shirt is not selling well so they stop ordering it, but this novelty coffee table book is selling well so they order more. At Ooga Booga, the entire store essentially is a category. One change always impacts the whole.
Moving Along: What About Value?
Before you pass your wise judgment just yet, keep this in mind: These retailers I’m talking about are not revolutionary, anti-capitalist or even anti-business. We’re not talking about Marxist critique. We could talk about fashion under socialism, or better yet, retail forms in communist Poland (now there is some fucked up retail). What I’m describing merely has to do with calling attention to an issue. There is a question of value that is brought to our attention in these places.
It’s interesting that a lot of people out there get angry about these retailers because they are creating desire and at the same time, they are presenting us with products just beyond our financial reach. Though we live in the age of credit, and we recognize that we can use a plastic card to obtain whatever stuff we want, today more than ever we face an increased and painful consciousness that yes, we really will pay for it later. So the concept of “within reach” has become a sore subject, and a rightful source of our critical ire. One retailer which seems oblivious to this issue is called, appropriately enough, Design Within Reach. DWR sells expensive furniture and household products created by named designers (of course, we need to recognize that every mass-produced object has been “designed,” whether we distinguish a taste for “good” design or not (i.e. people who label things as “design-y” are just talking vacuous nonsense)). DWR has become an object of derision however, because calling an $8,000 couch “within reach” is something of a joke to many people. Or is it? What seems to make this joke so painful to swallow may have more to do with a cultural touchpoint reference. Competitors, especially IKEA, offer similarly “designed” couches for just $800. At what cost, however? How many couches do we need, and how often? What is the value of a couch that could last a lifetime, compared to a couch that seems stylish for just the current style cycle? Look, I’m not trying to make a point about how to live. I’m trying to describe the problem that DWR implicitly touches on—and so does IKEA, too. A couch, however, is perhaps not a good example, because it is perceived as essential. Or is it? DWR has made a conscious decision to not offer a $800 couch. IKEA has made a conscious decision to not offer a $8,000 couch. Both raise problems. The traditional department store strived to offer both options, just in case. Isn’t it interesting that the department store, as a cultural form, is teetering on the edge of extinction?
(One of these couches is from DWR and costs $3600, one is from IKEA and costs $149)
Herein lies the inherent tension of the stores I brought up in the first place: their need to make money and stay in business vs. their message and philosophy, or suggestion about how we might live. To sell an expensive shirt that is truly “valuable”—because of its design, method of manufacturing and/or existence outside of the dominant mode of design/manufacturing/wholesaling/supply chain/retail—this is just one side of the coin. They suggest you do not need many of these shirts: Because how many clothes does someone really need after all? And at the same time, they must keep selling and making money to persist. Is it better to shop at Walmart and buy 10 t-shirts for $100, or go to one of these retailers and buy just one t-shirt for $100? What’s fair? What is more valuable? You must decide. This is actually not a problem of luxury goods, because the vast majority of these products do not fall under that category (true luxury wouldn’t sell t-shirts, and if they did, they would certainly cost much more than $100).
To ridicule these retailers who are arguably attempting to frustrate some part of the logic of consumerism is one thing, and seems more than acceptable. Again, this is neither a defense nor an apology for these retailers.
But here’s the thing. Shopping at Walmart, Target, H&M or any other of the more “reasonably priced” retailers needs to be recognized as a subscription to an idea, ideology, perspective and principle that is just as deeply ingrained and imbedded (I know you’re wearing clothes right now or at least sitting on a chair and reading this on a computer that you bought somewhere, so don’t think you can get out of this one!). We can try to write off these “fucked up” retailers for ripping us off and simply say that they’re smug and pretentious hipsters. But the fact of the matter is that they exist outside of the mainstream logic of consumerism and are trying to push for a different approach to economy. Being smug and re-imagining “value” differently need not be a fixed coupling. The problem seems to arise when shoppers impulsively carry their ingrained consumerist logic into these retail shops, because they’re not quite prepared for a space that might suggest a slightly different way of shopping. Yes, they are still promoting retail and shopping and consumerism. But consumerism is not one thing, it is a plurality—as is shopping, and capitalism itself.
Nothing new here. Small scale retail operations have always existed. But I’m not trying to ascribe intentionality to the retailers themselves. By looking at retail as a cultural form, this actually transcends the psychological motivations of a particular shopper or shopkeeper. And it raises a major point: retail has changed. Retail is not what it was. And I wouldn’t blame many people for not recognizing this shift over the last several decades, exactly because everyday retail is so banal and routine that we sometimes actively tune it out, even while it shapes our lives in a fundamental manner.
Exactly how is something I’ll write about more in the future here. But a brief summary of those important shifts, relevant here is: One, the internet and the emergence of online retailers. Two, the Walmart effect of mass scale retailing and supply chain combinations (and its limitations). And three, the mass proliferation of media and the declining efficacy of traditional advertising.
Much more to say, and much more to write about. Until then, fire away!