Friday, September 17, 2010

In praise of the conservative consumer

Much social science is pseudo-science and the proportion of dodgy research is particularly high in business-related areas. Nonetheless, it's interesting to see the concept of conservatism featuring in a recent model of consumer behavior devised by researcher Ross Honeywill. According to a profile by Lucinda Schmidt, Honeywill sees the recent global financial crisis (or 'the great recession') as less significant a turning point than something that occurred about 20 years ago: the advent of a new economic order, and the rise of a new kind of consumer (the 'NEO').

"NEOs are constant consumers: confident, individualistic, creative, free-thinking and socially progressive. Many are under 40, university-educated, self-employed and buy for quality not price.

The other type, 'traditionals', are more comfortable in a structured environment, often have conservative social values and are driven by price and getting the best deal.

Consumers come from these two planets ... The distinction is not between those who have money and those who don't; there are wealthy traditionals and poor NEOs."

The key difference is in the attitude to spending: 'traditionals' are unnerved by uncertainty and have disappeared from the consumer landscape in the US.

Honeywill makes the point that a recovery will only occur when the 'traditionals' start spending again. This may well be, but I can't help feeling that the behavior of the so-called 'traditionals' seems both more rational and more sustainable than that of the NEOs.

In fact this 'socially progressive' new style of consumer who buys for quality might be seen to be behind the massive build-up of debt which caused our current economic troubles. Moreover, the 'constant consumer' will inevitably define life in terms of consumption, and quality of life in terms of product quality.

Traditional modes of operation - based on setting one's own goals and living within one's means - are not only more sustainable but more conducive to a larger - and ultimately freer - view of life.