Last week, apparently bereft of an Isaiah Berlin parable to inform her weekly noodling in The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan deferred to a muse considerably less august. She ruminated over a story that had a few days earlier appeared in USA Today about a Michigan family who’d chosen to give up their increasingly hard-to-afford creature comforts (credit cards, satellite TV, etc.) and seek refuge from the economic storm. These “21st-century homesteaders,” without so much as Dancing With the Stars to divert them, now raise chickens and pigs, harvest vegetables from their own garden, and keep a woodstove burning to fight off the financial and cultural deep-freeze. In Noonan’s view, the Wojtowicz family is indicative of the current and likely future fate of what was—only yesterday!—the land of plenty. “There will be fewer facelifts and browlifts,” Noonan wrote of this new authenticity chic, “less Botox, less dyed hair among both men and women. [People] will look more like people used to look, before perfection came in.”
Observe the 70/30 “golden ratio” rule when taking stock of one’s own closet: 70 percent of what’s in there should be basic evergreen stuff that never goes out of style while a maximum of 30 percent should be stuff that qualifies as oh-so trend-right.
In other words, an anticonsumerist’s dream come true.
Well, maybe that’ll happen, but I don’t think so. While Noonan was brushing up on towering English philosophers as she idly flipped through USA Today, I’ve been lurking on scores of female consumer blogs—nothing kinky, it has to do with a book I’m writing. And what I see is not a pandemic of—yuck—bland affluence so much as ringing affirmation—thump, thump—of the American spirit, much like the qualities Noonan used to extol when she was writing presidential speeches. I’m talking about good old-fashioned Can Do! About the irrepressible, unquenchable, indomitable, and quintessentially red-white-and-blue drive to overcome any challenge, any time, anywhere. In this case to shop, come hell or high water.
Not that we’re not feeling the pinch. Right now I’m looking at retail sales reports for March, which year-over-year were down in the single-digits, a figure that masks some truly catastrophic declines: Abercrombie & Fitch (-34 percent); Ann Taylor (-24.5 percent); Bebe (-23.5 percent); Dillards (-19 percent); Gap/Banana Republic (-16 percent); J. Crew (-13 percent); Liz Claiborne (-22 percent); Saks (-23.6 percent); Zales (-18.1percent). Scary.
The precious few retailers on the plus side got off lucky for all the wrong reasons: Blockbuster (people can’t afford to go out); CVS (it sells relief for headaches and upset stomachs); PetSmart (alas, Rex has to eat, too). But if you look beyond the generally awful numbers, put a glass to the wall and eavesdrop on online-customer yakking, what you'll hear isn’t all gloom and doom. What you’ll hear is that the committed American shopper has no intention of going gently into that good night of bland affluence, nor embracing the false dawn of authenticity chic. Instead, she—and she is a she, given that some 80 percent of consumer spending is driven by women—is regrouping, playing the angles, shifting tactics. Ingenious new shopping strategies abound:
* Cost-per-wear is the new black. The inveterate shopper is finding solace (and much self-justification) in the currently fashionable notion that while it’s hard to swallow an out-of-pocket hit of, say, $1,200 for a new dress at Barneys, it’s not so crazy if you tell yourself that the dress can and will be worn on a projected, say, 20 occasions over the next couple of years. This brings its effective CPW ($60) down to levels normally found at H&M.
* Play by the new rules. On sites such as TheBudgetFashionista.com there are all sorts of tips for outsmarting the meltdown. One really good one is to observe the 70/30 “golden ratio” rule when taking stock of one’s own closet: 70 percent of what’s in there should be basic evergreen stuff that never goes out of style—white shirts, jeans, comfortable chinos, etc.—while a maximum of 30 percent should be stuff that qualifies as oh-so trend-right or neo-funky. Adhering to the golden ratio means you’ll keep your worst impulsive purchasing in check. Another new rule: The hard-pressed consumer can save on dry-cleaning bills by spritzing fabric freshener on doggy-smelling outerwear, even underwear I suppose, though the blogs don’t go there.
* Knowledge is purchasing power. Customers by the boxcar are logging on to numerous shopping sites that offer the inside skinny on manufacturer sourcing, intel that points to how there’s not infrequently but a gossamer thread of difference between a product that sports a super-premium luxury label and one that costs 10 times less at your nearby dead or dying mall. Last week, for example, the Budget Fashionistas posted an item (ostensibly from “a secret source”) that reported how J. Crew was selling cashmere sweaters ($98) made at the same plant (in Quarona, Italy) that turns out Loro Piana cashmere sweaters ($1,000).
* Goodwill hunting is on the rise. While Peggy Noonan’s semi-dystopian vision of the future projects a world in which Goodwill stores will have taken over retail spaces formerly occupied by Neiman Marcus, it ignores the fact that today’s Goodwill is no longer your grandmother’s shopping destination of last resort. Indeed, the global nonprofit now hosts an auction site [link: www.shopgoodwill.com] where unrepentant shoppers can bid on items initially priced at lower than a cup of coffee at Starbucks. The site is also chock-a-block with designer items—Gucci bags, Ray-Ban shades, Prada men’s and women’s shoes—not to mention items begging to be bought if only to remove them from civil society, such as the eight-inch-tall, iron-cast “mammy” bank I just stumbled across. In other words, even at this wretched moment in time inveterate shoppers down on their luck can find plenty of affordable and only slightly worn buys to stave off the insidious creep of bland affluence.
* Finally, lest we forget, shopping does not mean buying. A site called fashion-era.com takes pains to remind us that it’s the pleasure of the hunt that lifts the spirit of the red-white-and-blue-blooded shopper, not whether she actually bags something. Online shopping is an ideal way to stalk without pulling the trigger—that is, you load up your cart with whatever tickles your fancy, then don’t check out, simply save the cart overnight. Come morning, most of us won’t remember what was in it anyway.
As for Peggy Noonan, she may have once invoked a kinder, gentler nation, bathed in the promise of a thousand points of light, but at this perilous moment she overlooks a trait that’s fundamentally embedded in the American character: Where there’s a will to shop, goddammit, there’s a way.
Lee Eisenberg, who wrote the bestselling The Number: A Completely Different Way to Think About the Rest of Your Life, is the author of a new book about consumer behavior to be published this fall: Shoptimism: A Journey Through the Brave Heart and Restless Mind of the American Consumer. He is blogging on the subject at ShoptimismBook.com.