Call For Comments: Consumer vs. Experience Culture

From Wayne: Awhile back I read an article called Millennials: Fueling the Experience Economy, and it got me thinking about a number of things. Let me say up front that while do think there are distinct generational distinctions I’m not one of those old guys who are decrying youth. It’s the different perspectives and experiences, all valid, that I find interesting. So, while the article specifies Millennials, that’s not what this is about.

In general, what the article was saying, is that young people are more interested in experiencing things than in buying stuff. It included charts and graphs showing an increase in the popularity of events such as concerts, festivals, and other activities in conjunction with the decline in sales of consumer goods. It makes the point that as a society we are moving away from our traditional consumer culture into an experience culture. This raises a number of questions about capitalism, the nature of business, and what changes we can expect from this new paradigm.

As always I have to view this through my own experiences and observations. I tend to like experiential outings. I’ve been to a lot of concerts. I enjoy traveling. I also have a lot of books and CDs, many of which I will never read/listen to again, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of them. Having a library is important to me, but probably because having stuff as an economic indicator of stature is part of the era I grew up in.

I’ve made my living for the last couple of decades as a purveyor of unnecessary stuff. Whether it is comics or toys or games or whatever, the entire business is based on the idea of accumulating things. We count on completists, those fans who want to own every issue of a particular series, or every material iteration of a character they like. This is a microcosm of the larger cultural model of consumerism that has been our dominant economic paradigm since World War II.

I’ve seen that changing in the comics shop. Sales are down across the board. My older customers are the ones who are still the collectors. My younger customers are more about reading than collecting. These are generalities, but overall they hold true.

I think there are a number of factors involved. Part of it is the digital revolution. It has changed the way we view ownership. I can download a song or a book or a game and enjoy it without it being a physical object. I still experience the entertainment value but I don’t need to have it sitting on my shelf taking up room.

Many people I talk to, young or not, simply don’t have the room for a collection. In a world where most jobs barely pay rent we don’t have a lot of room for storage. I hear over and over from older collectors that they are out of room, and after years of buying comics now want to unload their entire collection. Does it make more sense to have the experience without owning a physical object that you now have to care for?

A few years ago I was on vacation in Santa Cruz and found an old school used record store, the kind I used to haunt all of time… the kind I don’t see many of anymore. My friend’s teenage son simply couldn’t understand the appeal or even the reason for the existence of a store like that. Through the internet he could listen to anything in the store at any time. Buying a single album and taking it home was incomprehensible to his experience with entertainment.

One of the arguments I’ve heard for owning the object is that “I can take it off the shelf and watch it (read it, play it), whenever I want to.” The thing is, that’s true of digital items as well, as long as the infrastructure exists to support it (and if it doesn’t we all have bigger issues to deal with than whether we can rewatch The Good Place at our command). There are larger issues around the concept of digital ownership and whether we own something we’ve paid for or are just renting it until the service goes away that we will probably talk about as well.

So what does this mean for small businesses and capitalism? Does it make more sense to open an Escape Room or an ax-throwing business where you sell access to an experience and don’t have to maintain an inventory that may never sell? What about all this stuff I own?

From Mav: I want a pony!

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