Thursday, April 16, 2009

Personality: Not the End of Consumerism

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Canadians are rather amused by the drop in consumer spending in the United States. It's not that consumer spending hasn't gone down in Canada--it has--but Canadians have simply never spent as much money as their American counterparts in the first place. Some say it's Scottish heritage; I argue that regardless of origin it comes down to the national personality being from the "thinking world" and valuing ideas more than image--the desire to impress one's neighbors simply isn't as high here. The contrast is so strong that even the first issue of the new Christian Science Monitor weekly featured an article on the relative thriftiness of Canadians.

In that same issue, the Monitor presents "Ten Ways the Economy Will Be Different" in the United States, starting with "Value as the new Virtue". The argument is that the economic crisis will cause United States citizens to permanently end "the era of bling," the end of conspicuous consumption. Instead, it is argued, people will look for value in their spending.

Certainly, this is what is happening in the short term. People don't have as much money because of job losses, reduced work hours, or losses in financial markets and thus are not spending as much money. The same changes have taken place in Canada, and the impact is the same, reduced spending and increased emphasis on value for the money.

I don't buy it in the long term. Fundamentally, the United States personality is from the emotional world, emphasizing image and feelings, and it always has been. Right back to the self-promotion of Paul Revere and Benjamin Franklin, the United States has been most susceptible to marketing, and somehow that survived the Great Depression and gave us another era of marketing-driven consumption after World War II that some call The Age of Persuasion.

I have talked to Americans of personality types from all four worlds, and most people, from all worlds, claim that they are comfortable not spending as much money right now because other people are not spending money now. If "everyone" started spending money again, they would feel pressured to start spending also.

It's only a matter of time before people start having enough money to spend again, and marketers adjust to the new reality and find compelling sales pitches for the times (which, indeed, may emphasize value). The era of "bling" exactly as we knew it might be over, but the fundamentals of consumer spending to keep up with one's neighbors will be back. It's in the personality of the United States. When that happens, Canadians will still look south in wonderment and continue to be thrifty.

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