The latest and most in-depth study of the shift in consumer behaviour has been undertaken by agency Young & Rubicam and interpreted by John Gezerma in the book Spend Shift. Their data was derived from quarterly surveys over several years that revealed a steady trend away from the conspicuous consumption that dominated the decade beginning in the mid 1990s. By the 2009, the authors determined that as many as 55% of American adults could be classified as spend shifters with another 27% acting as “Fast Followers.” The authors’ opening description of the shifting phenomenon resonates with the other studies discussed here:

 Americans were shifting away from mindless consumerism toward a life defined by old-fashioned values of thrift, self-reliance, community cooperation and a remarkably optimistic view of the future. Among the qualities Americans found more important as they suffered through the crisis were: Kindness and Empathy: up 391%; Friendly: up 148%; High-quality: up 124%; and Socially responsible–up 63%

The key value shifts distilled by the Young & Rubicam data affirm the findings of the other researchers:

  • The value of optimism and resiliency – the recession has caused people to trust and rely on themselves and their immediate communities more than external authorities be they in the public or private sectors, and is birthing a movement of creative entrepreneurs willing to fill niches and experiment with new business models.
  • The value of re-tooling,  education and betterment. Not only are spend shifters saying enough is enough and less is more but less can be better, if well designed. Spend shifters are committed to personal growth and development and moving up Maslow’s pyramid of needs at a rapid rate.
  • The value of nimbleness, adaptability and agility. Having been caught weighed down by too much stuff and over-sized assets that need time and money to maintain, spend shifters are shedding, down sizing and preferring, in many cases, to rent or share rather than own. New consumers are more likely now to re-locate (even changing countrues) in order to find economic stability or a better lifestyle.
  • The value of community and cooperative consumerism. Individuals are using today’s connecting technologies to exchange ideas as well as goods and to harness the power of their numbers when they work and play collaboratively. 52% of spend shifters believe that the opportunities for small business are better than they have ever been especially if they work together to reduce costs and seize opportunities. Sharing and collaboration will be hallmarks of this decade and rugged individualism will be replaced with more altruistic idealism.
  • The value of character, authenticity and humility  – in the 90s consumers wore brands as expressions of our identity. Ten years later what we carry had become less important than how we carried ourselves. Empathy moved up 400% as an attribute of corporate behaviour. As individuals,  spend shifters continue to pursue happiness but don’t expect to find it in the acquisition of stuff. They also expect the companies they buy from to show leadership and care over and above a preoccupation with profit.
  • Aligning Spending with Values – spend shifters are likely to cut back the purchase of things in favour of experiences and many will save to buy quality over a discounted, cheaper alternative, especially if the cheaper alternative is perceived as having been created at the expense of employees, the local community or the environment. Most importantly, nearly 70% of spend shifters believe they can use their wallets to influence corporate behavior and,  given that consumer spending amounts to over two-thirds of GDP in many westernized countries,  their impact will be significant.
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