Editor's view: Have nothing that's not useful or beautiful

  • Opinion
  • January 24, 2017
  • Sarah Dunn
Editor's view: Have nothing that's not useful or beautiful

I’m sure there’s a legitimately indispensable subscription box out there – meal kit services like My Food Bag have their place, and when sick at home a few weeks ago, I longed for a service which would select flu-fighting supplements and pharmacy medicines and send them directly to my couch. However, the global rise of businesses like Birchbox and Barkbox seem to be less about providing a useful or beautiful product, and more about maximising the consumption of non-essential goods by cutting out pre-purchase decision-making. There’s something wrong with that.

With the rise in experiential retail, we’re seeing an evolution of the understanding that shopping is about more than simply obtaining necessary goods and services. At its best, the experiential trend is about letting shoppers step inside your brand for a unique experience that deepens the value of your product and your company through education.

At its worst, it creates an environment where a retailer is seeking to control and commodify the way the customer interacts with their brand in order to maximise their vulnerability to a sales pitch. Customers are pushed to purchase items that they don’t value because they’re caught up in the in-store hype. There’s something wrong with that, too.

So many recent retail trends – contextual commerce, ever-more-seamless POS technology, pop-up stores in non-commercial areas, same-day deliveries – seem to be about increasing the opportunities and facilities for consumers to purchase quickly and casually, then move on to the next buy.

As social and environmental awareness becomes more mainstream, however, a growing number of consumers are turning away from shopping thoughtlessly. Unloved goods are piling up worldwide – plastics in the sea, clutter in our homes, fast fashion in our closets, and mountains upon mountains of everything conceivable in landfills. All this unnecessary stuff is becoming hard to ignore, and thought leaders like decluttering expert Marie Kondo and ‘Wardrobe Crisis: How We Went from Sunday Best to Fast Fashion’ author Clare Press are asking shoppers to consider their purchases more carefully.

Quite apart from environmental concerns, Millennial and Generation Z consumers also seem to be redirecting their disposable income away from material signifiers and toward more shareable, social media-friendly experiences like travel and dining out.

I think these changes are a welcome step towards fixing a broken consumer culture that continues to be a key driver of climate change and social inequality in the developing world. Solving global wastage isn’t up to retailers, of course, but there’s also no rule saying retailers must actively contribute to it by building their business around consumers’ moments of weakness. A new generation of responsible retailers like Australian website Well Made Clothes and the UK’s Buy Me Once is challenging the existing climate of throwaway goods by offering quality goods at a higher price point.

One of the traditional responsibilities of retailers is to help consumers choose the right items for their needs. As we enter the Christmas shopping season, perhaps you could assess your stock and ask yourself - is what you’re selling beautiful or useful? Will your customers love it or need it? Is it sustainably made?

And if it’s none of the above, would anybody miss it if it was replaced by something that is?

This story originally appeared in NZ Retail magazine issue 747 December 2016 / January 2017

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