THE SOUL OF THE NEW CONSUMER
David Lewis & Darren Bridger
Nicholas Brealey Publishing pounds 18
Lewis and Bridger's New Consumers evolved from the loadsamoney yuppies of the materialistic '80s. They're rich, pressed for time and they know what they want. But it's no longer the flash (the Porsche, the Bollie, the designer labels). New Consumers purchase in a way that goes beyond lifestyle choices.
What they buy, what they don't buy and where they buy it are statements of the core constructs of their personality and self-esteem. They're impervious to the blandishments of suppliers. Advertising finds it tough to reach them.
Their choices as consumers are determined by their desire to grow as individuals rather than to make statements of display. Some have lost religion and lost contact with their souls. Consumption fills the gap.
The New Consumer is all about individualism, involvement and independence.
Big brands are suspect - Levi Strauss, Kelloggs, Marks & Spencer and even Coca Cola (whose fourth quarter of 1999 showed a devastating 27% profit decline) are in disfavour.
The new world is one of organic vegetables, with the earth still on them, and bespoke olive oil from some obscure little Tuscany village.
The Old Consumer showed off his gold Rolex; the New Consumer has his Rolex in steel, and waits for five months to get it. At business meetings suits are giving way to Gap khakis. Dressing down is 'authentic'. Mountain bikes are 'authentic'. The smartest Fifth Avenue apartments now contain regulation stainless-steel prison toilets - costing 10 times as much as the standard models, but real, individual, minimalist. 'Minimalist?', the designer in The New Yorker cartoon says to his client, 'I'm not sure if your budget is big enough for minimalism.'
Freud's 'narcissism of small differences' captures the discreet ways in which the New Consumer demonstrates both individuality and membership of a select group. The five or six sleeve buttons on a Paul Smith suit, the stitching on a quality shirt collar.
New Consumers want dialogue. They don't want goods thrust on them. They want information. They demand to know, for example, that, unlike wild salmon, farmed salmon, lacking the nutrients that give their flesh its rosy pink colour, must be fed chemicals. Or that children's pop-up books have been assembled in the Third World.
The New Consumer likes products that are located in place. Place is authentic (Thai silk, Evian water). Time is authentic (the original 1955 Duncan yo-yo). Originality is too - particularly with the newcomer pitted against the Old Consumer brand leader (the Dyson Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner versus the Hoover). Out there are 'cool hunters', in expensive demand by companies that want to know the next New Consumer colour choice, or food, or fitness trend. The gay community is a good place to spot its start. What's cool for straights so often starts out as being cool for gays. In the late 1990s a sudden demand for Hush Puppies - those suede casual icons of 1950s suburban chic - arose from a Greenwich Village buzz that they were cool.
This is such an enjoyable book, and an important and timely one too.
With the internet upon us the shape and scale of our consumer world is changing by the moment. E-trading is transforming overnight the direct participation of consumers in banking and financial services, as private individuals play the stock market from home. Soon we will be able to edit our own newspapers and magazines. Already we can download our own choice of music. Empowered by prosperity, the New Consumer is now calling the shots. Every business in the world needs to understand this. Lewis and Bridger's book should become required reading.