Monday, May 28, 2007

Power to the People, Sort Of

Unlike this very long post, it was just a little two sentence article in the Consumer Briefs column of Sunday's LA Times, but it spoke volumes about the power of the consumer. Proctor & Gamble, gigantic marketer of just about every product imaginable having to do with the basic functioning of our homes, is going to start selling concentrated liquid laundry detergent in containers that are half the size of the current ones. This will "cut transportation and warehouse costs and reduce plastic that goes into landfill." Yes, huzzahs and cheers to them for their corporate cost-effective yet still noble effort, but the important thing is that they're doing it "to meet customer demand." Is it possible that concerns for the environment have reached some sort of critical mass with consumers and that has resulted in major corporations finally tipping over the edge into, dare I say it, green thinking? This is quite encouraging.

But while I'm delighted to know that consumers seem to have enough awareness and clout to influence positive change in a manufacturer the size of P&G, I'm less enthusiastic to learn about consumers' ability to influence a major retailer who sells women's shoes. Of course, it's a cliche to say that women love their shoes and have far too many pair in their closets. But we may have hit a new high in overindulgence reflected by the flagship store of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. In August, the store is opening an 8,500 square foot designer shoe salon that is so huge it will have its own ZIP code. Thanks to the clever plan of the Saks marketing executives, this eighth floor behemoth will even be named 10022-SHOE. It will feature, in addition to about a trillion shoes, "a VIP room for private shopping, an in-house cobbler and a chocolate cafe." (Footwear, obviously, is the only item of apparel a woman can shop for without guilt while simultaneously indulging in chocolate.)

One might conclude that there's a significant disconnect between (1) consumer sensitivity to the environment that results in an important change in product packaging and (2) consumer demand that causes the expansion of a shoe department to 150% its former size to accommodate the shopper who had custom glass shelves devoted to shoes in her home and her friend who estimated that she owned 500 pairs of shoes. But maybe there isn't a disconnect at all. Maybe, once again, we're all just responding to marketing and the cool factor.

I believe that people generally want to do "the right thing" and, at this particular moment in history, the right thing is to be aware of the impact we're having on the environment, then choose to do something, anything, that we believe will help. It's finally becoming cool to be "green." Not necessarily radical, No Impact Man, tree-hugging green, but green enough that we can demonstrate to ourselves and our friends that we're willing participants in the effort to help save the environment. (Of course, eventually messy coastal flooding from the continually rising sea levels may force all of us to reevaluate our level of commitment to change.)

How have we become aware of these environmental concerns? The media. But it's not just news stories that got our attention -- reporting the situation has been going on for ages; no, it's the opinion leaders, the people we think of as "cool" who have pushed awareness into the realm of the general public. If a famous person we admire is supporting an environmental cause, we're more inclined to pay attention, and most importantly, we're more inclined to act based on the endorsement of that famous person than if we're simply presented straight facts. That's the whole basis of marketing. That's why "causes" work so hard to get a famous spokesperson to represent them; they know we'll listen more attentively to the message and maybe even respond if we like the spokesperson.

In addition, we humans are social creatures, interacting daily in situations that require us to assess the hierarchy within the group of people and the circumstances around us. Who's someone to be reckoned with, who's someone easily dismissed, who's at about our level and therefore possibly a comfortable associate? And let's face it, our appearance is what plunks us right down on "our" spot on the hierarchy. No discussion is necessary about the legitimacy of making this kind of evaluation -- of course it's ridiculous to presume all the things we do based on appearances, but it's also a reality. So I was interested to note the comment from a Saks shopper who said, "Because New York women don't have cars, their shoes and their handbags tell you everything about them. . .It's sort of their way of communicating themselves without being behind the wheel of a car."

I live in LA where recognizing and acknowledging status is an art because looks can be deceiving due to our extremely casual lifestyle. This shopper's comment made perfect sense to me. While in Beverly Hills the other day with my significant other, The Writer, I said to him that it was amazing how much the area had changed. Now practically everybody looks like a tourist (no offense, dear tourists, but you know how you dress sometimes; and yes, I've been known to go out looking less than fabulous, too). A few locals were easy to spot, but for many, many people on the street, the only clue to their wealth (except, perhaps, for an expensive watch) was to see what kind of car they got into. A total schlub could step into a Bugatti because here in a city where cars are of primary importance, the Bugatti was enough to make the status statement. (As I mentioned in a previous post, many well-known show biz types are now making the Prius a cool green status symbol, but that's often because those particular types already have recognizable faces.)

But in New York, where there's a more formal culture, and with winter to contend with, too, a statement of a different kind is required: shoes and bags. And at some point, status awareness becomes a function of marketing, not quality. Otherwise, why would one high-quality designer be the darling of the fashion world one season, only to be overthrown by a totally different high-quality designer the next season? In fact, it's the changeability of the fashion trends that send the cool signal. The more status currently accorded the brand, the cooler the individual who wears or carries it. And if Vogue (or Dwell or or whatever source is your favorite arbiter of style) says this is the designer, this is the wardrobe style, this is the lifestyle, you can pretty much bet that defines the aspirations of its target consumer. The manifestations may vary based on geography (LA people are more focused on cars, New Yorkers on shoes), but we all respond to what's presented to us as cool. It's a phenomenon that's fascinating, understandable, and sometimes unfortunate.

So the apparent consumer disconnect may not be quite as disconnected as it seems. In both cases, the concern for the environment and what we feel we require to make a status statement are to a great extent simply a function of marketing. Yes, we're more aware now that our purchasing choices can make a difference for the future of the planet and we're willing to help where we can. This is the good news. But we're also trying to function in the real world and wanting to assert ourselves in a way that demonstrates to others who we are in the scheme of things. The problem is we're not yet aware that it's possible to do that with fewer than five hundred pairs of shoes.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob


Ariane Benefit said...

Ah yes, we do live in a world of paradoxes. And even the almighty corporations can't control everything - they must bend to consumer demand in a consumerist world - or figure out a way to make green "uncool". : )

dB said...

I think people want to have their cake and eat it too. (I always hated that term; if you eat it, don't you really still have it? At least for a while?)

But anyway, people want to say they are "green" by using a DVD that has packaging that is recycled paper and soy ink, but then they drive home in their SUV because they think it fits their kids better. Very few people think about these things all the time. (Even Al Gore flies in a private jet.)

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Thanks for your comments, Ariane and David.

The issue of how much time and energy each of us is willing to devote to making the "right" choices is so complex. It seems like there's always some uncomfortable trade-off involved. I figure all we can do is try to be aware of what it is we're trading and make the best informed choice that we can.

But there are many days when the whole thing gives me a headache and I'd be quite content to eat some of that mysterious proverbial cake.