How the Recession Has Created a 'Grounded Consumer'

Spending May Be Down, but a 'Cultural Correction' Has Helped Lift Spirits

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Robbie Blinkoff
Robbie Blinkoff
The holiday season is a period notorious for shopping, sales and gift giving. Year after year, consumers take part in celebrations of excess from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day. So when you add a recession, a high unemployment rate and other economic downers to the mix, you might think the party is over -- consumers must be too disheartened to find happiness this holiday season.

My company, Context-Based Research Group, is an ethnographic firm with cultural anthropologists around the world who observe human behavior to uncover the reasons people do what they do. According to quantitative research conducted by my firm and Carton Donofrio Partners, an ad agency in Baltimore, consumers, like a phoenix rising, are embracing the cultural transformation that has taken place over the past year. The survey, which questioned 1,000 U.S. adults, comes one year after we released an ethnographic research report, "Grounding the American Dream: A Cultural Study on the Future of Consumerism in a Changing Economy." Both studies are part of an ongoing effort to monitor the changing attitudes of U.S. consumers.

It seems counterintuitive, but a significant portion of respondents to the quantitative study -- 43% -- believe the recession has had a positive impact on their lives. Interestingly, those who have been most affected by the recession are just as likely to say their lives have been positively influenced as those who have not been directly affected. More than four-fifths of respondents (84%) indicate that they "plan to spend less this year on holiday gifts" while two-fifths (43%) "strongly" agree that they will spend less.

This news that the recession is having a positive affect may shock some because as a society we've been conditioned to believe it's going to be a dismal holiday season based on various economic measures. The recession has taught us that there is danger inherent in using economic principles to assess our value as consumers and as people. We're slowly beginning to realize that as a society, our worth should be calculated in social, not economic, terms.

So what are we in for now? New bubbles and bursts -- or a more balanced future? Mirroring post-Sept. 11 behavior, the downturn has prompted a cultural transformation, helping people move away from commercialized holiday gatherings to more meaningful celebrations. Our culture is undergoing an honest to goodness rite of passage -- we will no longer let the market and consumerism dictate who we are as people.

Our "Grounding the American Dream" research report identified this transformation as "grounded consumerism." According to our new quantitative research, it seems to have stuck.

This holiday season has arrived during a coming of age for the American consumer. While retailers may be hoping that the current shopping season will be more prosperous than in 2008, our research suggests that Americans will keep a firm grip on their wallets while finding gratification through activities that are less consumer-centric and, perhaps, more consequential. According to our survey, even people who say they were not impacted directly by the recession said they will gift-give in the form of volunteering (34%) and spend more time with friends and family (78%).

My colleagues and I believe the emphasis on the social aspect of the holidays this year is an indicator of the continuing shift to the "we" economy. Our previous work showed people moving away from the individualist "me" economy into a more altruistic "we" economy -- a relational rather than transactional situation.

As a society, we are experiencing a significant shift that will far outlast the tinsel, lights and leftovers. We're getting a good look at who we are, what is important and what we want from our future. We're not throwing out consumerism, but becoming grounded consumers. You might say a grand-scale cultural correction is taking place. And this anthropologist believes a lot of good can come from that.

Robbie Blinkoff is the founder and principal anthropologist at Context-Based Research Group in Baltimore, which has worked with such clients as American Express, Fisher-Price, Nike, Procter & Gamble and Wyeth. The company will release full findings from its survey on the post-recession grounded consumer in early 2010. Its study from one year ago, "Grounding the American Dream," is available for free online.
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