We live in an era of contradictions – while the very nature of IKEA’s business dictates that their next commercial objective will have something to do with increasing sales (namely, doubling their sales by 2020, this week their Head of Sustainability Steve Howard has just been quoted as saying (during a debate on sustainability, no less) that the West has reached ‘peak home furnishings’ and that the Western consumers’ general desire for repeatedly buying new ‘things’ is fading.
No doubt the furniture retailer’s statement came as part of a wider CSR strategy to highlight their sustainability efforts, and while I think there is a lot of truth to the claim, I am not convinced that the Western customer is turning away from consumerism – they are simply becoming more discerning to an extent that traditional branding (however post-modern and narrative driven) will no longer do.
What better to prove this, I think, than the astronomic rise of subscription-based start-ups that send consumers curated goods as frequently as weekly? From food ingredient and recipe kit delivery services (HelloFresh, SimplyCook), sustainable coffee on your doorstep (Pact Coffee) to platforms that assess how you can best optimise your personal style and send fashionable clothes direct to your flat (TrunkClub)? And this is if we don’t look at some of the more niche subscription services out there, from everything to premium quality underwear (MeUndies), to the monthly postal chlorine-free, sustainable tampon delivery service TrinketWomen. Even rival music streaming services such as Tidal and Spotify pride themselves on how well they curate playlists – the playlists are what’s exclusive to one over the other.
While there is evidence that the post-modern consumer aspires to own less physical items than generations before, there is also an element of risk mitigation that is in a way, the selling point of these curator-led subscription services.
Treating yourself to something that has already been specially chosen for you and thus mitigating risk (which one could argue, is the general direction that other platform-based services are moving in, with Uber giving you the opportunity to play your chosen Spotify playlist when you use one of their ride-sharing services) can in a way be thought of as the intersection between easy access to technology and post-recession behaviour. As the credit crunch forced more and more households to make do with less than optimal appliances or furniture (either by repairing them, or finding ways around using the items), once the economic upturn started to roll in, it is very possible that this sort of behaviour may have crystallised as consumers realised that it was not, after all, necessary to always buy new goods.
Secondly, as per a recent RIBA report (December 2015), British homes are shrinking (and when we do have some extra space, we rent it out via Airbnb). In a blog post a few weeks ago, we also discussed how there has also been a rise in smaller, one-person households not equipped for large gatherings or activities that take up much space. It comes as no surprise then, that there has also been a significant rise in self-storage services – a way to remove inconvenience. According to an article by the Financial Times, internet-based storage services such as LoveSpace, Boxman, and WeStore are disrupting the UK’s £385m self-storage sector by modelling their business in a way that is more flexible and convenient to the customer. One of them, SpaceWays, is even funded by the start-up Rocket Internet. SpaceWays gives users (Londoners, but they are planning to expand to other cities soon) a box they can fill with items that are then picked up and stored in a secure warehouse just outside London.
On its website, the Self-Storage Association states that the reason storage facility services have become so successful is due to ‘social factors such as moving home, marriage, divorce, retirement and for businesses’ (this is also consistent with our findings on the deregulation of life). The CEO Rennie Schafer of the Association adds that this trend is also spilling over into the business sector:
“If you are starting a business in today’s landscape it makes sense to use a facility that is flexible and cheap. For start-ups, self-storage has always been a potentially more cost-effective way of getting established.”
There is of course another element to consider, which is that that this kind of business model relies heavily on social media and blogger ‘army’ of advocates to disseminate and amplify its message. While at the very dawn of the vlogger critic era, these advocates may have been seen as the common man reviewing an item for the collective knowledge of the public, it remains to be seen just how much consumer trust will be lost as more and more sponsorship deals between bloggers and manufacturers are revealed.
One thing’s for sure though – a lot of us will be downsizing our physical possessions and carry on creating more digital memories this year.