Editor's Choice

The flight to quality

When business journalists mention the flight to quality, they usually mean investors shedding risky investments and buying government Treasurys, blue-chip stocks, gold ingots. But in a recession (consumer spending was down 3.1 percent last quarter, which is an astonishingly high number), consumers may make their own humble flight to quality as well. I was stuck by a line from this Economist article about American retailers' coming struggles: "Among deep discounters, too, such as Dollar General and Dollar Tree, which have benefited from shoppers looking for the best possible value, the leaders are gaining at the expense of laggards. Even dollar stores are finding life harder, as customers are somehow finding their way to goods that yield their sellers the very lowest profit margins." The word "somehow" intrigues me in that last sentence -- the lowest profit margins probably come from the goods that give consumers the most value, and when their minds are focused by hard times, they can perhaps ferret out that value more ably. That's a tall assumption -- that use value correlates negatively with profit margin -- but I'm going to go with it to indulge in some speculation.

It seems to me that in the 99-cent store, where there are no coherent efforts at marketing, branding, or promotion, consumers are at less of a disadvantage; some of the information asymmetries that marketing systematically tries to create are absent. And distortions of use value created by price signals are muted, since everything is priced the same. So without all that static, consumers can perceive the actual usefulness of goods more clearly. But in order for that to happen, consumers must overcome the initial disorientation that comes with shopping in such an arid retail environment. Marketing and branding, etc., all ultimately save us time and make our shopping at once more efficient and more pleasurable -- we can fly into fantasy thanks to the narratives advertising has enchanted the goods with. At the 99-cent store, goods are disenchanted and bewildering in their profusion. We are forced into a different mind-set when we go there -- a skeptical, distrustful attitude that has us interrogating the goods rather than open to being seduced by them. This is the opposite of what profit-seeking retailers generally try to accomplish: this McKinsey report summarizes what the typical goal is:

Retailers with good financial health in mature industries can also go on the offensive, taking actions to quickly grow revenue by driving traffic into stores through more compelling offers and ensuring that staff is ready on the floor for the assisted sale. For example, a North American soft goods retailer has reversed declining sales, improved customer satisfaction, and increased the frequency and average size of transactions by focusing on eliminating out-of-stocks, raising the effectiveness of front-line salespeople, and making small store-layout changes that help customers find the goods they want.

It's worth remembering that these efforts improve the retailers' bottom line, not the consumers'. (It has been Best Buy's strategy in crushing Circuit City, which announced it was closing The consumers spend extra for the accessibility, not for quality; if they are trained by hard times to eschew that, then they can save what the ordinarily pay to spruce up the shopping experience while still satisfying their "needs" -- that is, if you accept that there is such a thing as the difference between wants and needs.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

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From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

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This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

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