Across the country, thousands of ‘non-essential’ shops will re-open today. At the same time, much conversation is being had about how to kick-start, re-start, resurrect and revive the economy. On the one hand, this is a moment to be cautiously optimistic, a marking of the end of Round 1 of our collective battle with COVID 19. But it is also a moment that might, in time, take on a much more significant meaning.
Could we be about to see a significant step down in collective levels of consumption? One thing we can be sure about in our society is that straight after a crisis our glorious leaders will demand we all do our duty and head out to the shops. Blair and Bush did it after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Boris after the 2008 financial crisis and now he’s back to make the same request again today.
No doubt the news this week will be seeking out the longest queue for a high street store (my bet is on Primark which has no online retail presence) but it’s worth remembering that even a 100m queue of 2m spaced individuals represents a tiny fraction of the number of daily shoppers retail outlets need to survive. So, will people listen to the demand to spend, spend, spend? And, while the fact that only 1/3 of people claim to feel safe outside their home may just be a temporary level of caution, what are we to make of the 1 in 5 people who say they will never enter a clothes shop again?
It’s important at times like these to be cautious about transforming our own preferences about how the world should be into bold predictions of how it will be. However, without the commute, the Highstreet, or the social occasions to dress up for, beards have grown long, comfortable clothes have become familiar and consumption across many categories has fallen. Perhaps the 15thJune 2020 will mark an important moment in economic history, a collective break up with hyper-consumer capitalism, if it does it will be thanks to the way the last few months has re-set our relationship to stuff.
A Financial Re-set
Facing both a health and economic crisis, it appears the government’s response to the latter has been far more effective than their attempts to ‘control’ the virus itself. Financial support during the pandemic is estimated to be costing somewhere in the region of £14bn per month. While it took a little while to figure out an approach that would cover everyone, including the self-employed, it appears that the furlough scheme was largely proportional to the economic crisis we all faced.
People will have had a range of different experiences during the last few months with some furloughed, some adapting to working from home either on full salaries or on temporarily reduced ones. We also know that 10.6m people, the key workers, have had to go to work as normal despite having to face risks the rest of us were being protected from.
Nonetheless, for many the disruption to normal life has been an opportunity to re-set their perspective on finances. Without the go-go-go of a busy urban existence people have been spending significantly less, it seems, on daily life. With more time on our hands and less need to dress to impress, it’s not surprising that one under-reported data point from the pandemic was the significant reduction in consumer debt. The figures suggested that if the UK were to maintain lock-down spending habits for an entire 12 months we would become a nation that was entirely free from consumer debt – imagine that.
Many will have been experiencing life with a 20% pay cut, either because they are one of the 9m people to take part in the furlough scheme or as part of a response to uncertain business environment. While for some, it will have meant financial hardship, millions of people may have just discovered that they can live quite happily with the salary that comes from a 4-day work week. The potential environmental impact that could come about from a ‘less money, less stuff, more time’ lifestyle will be no less significant than the potential benefit to mental wellbeing that follows a de-stressed and de-cluttered life.
What a spring! It’s very British to talk about the weather but over the last few months the nation has resounded to the sweet coos of people on zoom exalting the glorious Spring we’ve been having. I’ve been lucky enough to keep working from home and strolling the local streets before, during and after working hours where I’ve seen colours, heard creatures and smelt delightful floral notes that usually struggle to cut through the cacophonous fug of East London.
Open roads, quiet neighbourhoods, clear skies and the dawn chorus have re-connected atomised commuters to the vibrant natural world waiting for us all just out of sight. Meanwhile, the suffering of thousands with lung conditions and asthma has been relieved due reduced air pollution. We cannot un-see the images of wildlife reclaiming the streets, not forget the role our local green spaces, gardens and parks have played in keeping us fit and sane these last few months.
How satisfying will a weekend of shopping feel after months of park life and fresh air? How obvious will be the lie of those open road car adverts be when thousands pile back onto our streets to try and get to work, too scared to take the tube? Outdoor exercise, sunshine and fresh air aren’t always on the menu this far into the Northern hemisphere, but the indoor throngs of the overcrowded, soulless shopping malls may suddenly feel like a very strange way to spend our precious free time.
If lockdown has taught us anything at all, it is how to use video conferencing. I have to confess, until the last few months, I hated video conferencing. It was almost always less convenient and less reliable than a simple telephone call. As far as I was concerned there was nothing to be gained from seeing people on a screen that you couldn’t get from listening closely to their tone of voice. Why bother with the faff when there was a good chance of a blurry picture or sounding like a robot that was being slowly melted by a static-crackling death laser.
However, the rather embarrassing truth is that I’ve come to discover that I can do most of my job from the comfort of my sofa. In fact, for introverts and knowledge workers (and especially for those who have to process, digest and synthesise vast and complex information), remote working is simply far superior to an open plan office full of extroverts, micro interruptions and constant ‘quick questions’ from co-workers.
If people do increasingly opt for home working, how will our shopping and consumption habits change when we aren’t exposed to all that radio and train-line advertising on the daily commute? And how much less will we need to buy if we’re not dressing to impress five days a week? What will happen to the fragrance industry, categories like shower gel, footwear and formalwear when we only need to look good from the waist up?
I could be wrong
Of course, there are plenty of good reasons to reject this analysis and argue that we are a few short months away from overwhelming the above re-sets and getting the economy back to how it all was before. Humans adapt and advertising wields a tremendous power over our desires and behaviours. There will always be young people who are desperate to explore, shape and communicate their identity… plus they’re probably all bored out of their minds from having had to put up with being locked in with mum and dad for like, aaaaages.
Also, any change that does come may not show up straight away. While I predict a cautious return to consumerism in the near term, the more radical changes that I’ve shown the potential for above may play out on a longer timeline. Companies are tied into long term office leases, people have rented and bought property with a strong consideration about their daily commute and many will still hesitate to ask for a 4-day week or better work-from-home arrangements. But what has been experienced cannot be taken away and the potential for change is stronger than ever.
The final question then, is “will you get ahead of what’s coming and help shape better outcomes for people, the environment and our shared economy or does your future success still ultimately depend upon rising consumer dept, overwork and unnecessarily time-consuming pollution generating travel?” While it may seem like taking on these challenges will be slow and complex, one thing the pandemic has shown us is that change is possible, and when the conditions are right, it can happen incredibly quickly. How will you seize this moment to deliver change?