Have consumers had enough of stuff?

Selling unwanted stuff on eBay is common but selling gifts on Christmas day is less so, have we reached a tipping point when it comes to our love for material things?

On 25 December 2013, listings of computers and tablets on eBay’s UK site shot up 25 per cent, there were 25,000 listings for handmade gifts and ten times more women’s clothes were listed than men’s.

According to a report from eBay and Gumtree looking into what items were sold on Christmas Day 2013, 8 in 10 Brits would consider reselling an unwanted gift and are sitting on £2.4bn-worth of them.

Meanwhile on Gumtree, 100,000 ads are posted on the site every day, as people look to declutter.

Sam Diamond, head of marketing at Gumtree, says: “The selling trend will only increase, and it’s not just about the money. We’re more conscious of the environment these days and our users recognise the social benefit of giving unwanted goods to a new home.”

Is this a sign that consumers have too much stuff? James Wallman, author of the book Stuffocation, believes that people are feeling suffocated by their stuff (see Stuffocation Explained, below).

Wallman writes that people are not bothered about the quantity of stuff they own anymore but are excited by quality of life. They do not want more material possessions but they do want status. And they increasingly know they are more likely to find that, not in material possessions, but in experiences that illustrate who they are, he claims.

It is in this experience culture that Wallman believes brands can succeed, as “companies don’t want to sell us stuff, they want to make money – if they could sell us less stuff but make more money they would be up for that”.

Although alcohol brands are not in the business of selling goods that people keep long term, they are ahead of the experience trend and have identified the need to provide consumers with a longer lasting taste of their brands. For example, Guinness Storehouse in Ireland launched a tasting experience, The Tasting Rooms, designed by Bompas & Parr, in August 2013. Since then, over 1.1 million guests have passed through its doors.

People can get the wheels they want when they want without spending hundreds of pounds

Brand manager at The Guiness Storehouse Aisling McNally says: “It’s no longer OK to say, ‘here’s Guinness, here’s how we create it, here’s how you should drink it’. They want to roll up their sleeves and get involved in the experience, so we have a bar where they can pour their own pints and have fun with their mates.”

Belvedere vodka ran a similar experience during cocktail week in London last October. The Belvedere Martini Bar aimed to demystify the cocktail, but when researching cocktails, the brand saw an overload in information.

Claire Smith, head of mixology and spirit creation at Belvedere, says: “We looked up the perfect martini [on a search engine] and it came up with 36 million results. With further research, we had the top 20 variables – whether you use an olive or a lemon twist, whether it is shaken or stirred. That was information overload and the amount of variations could be intimidating for people.”

Smith believes that by taking away the complication around cocktails, people will feel positive about the brand. “That’s what we’re aiming for – interaction between our customers and our brand and bringing people into the brand rather than just being a product.”

Social currency

Wallman also writes that businesses tend to try to sell newly positioned but actually the same things. However, to succeed in today’s world, they will have to create genuinely new, engaging goods, services or adventures that give people ‘social and experiential currency’ – that is, a story to tell and an experience worth remembering.

Social media is playing its part in this respect. People are hyper-connected through their mobile devices, so what brands do matters much more.

The Guinness Storehouse has a social media wall, where consumers’ posts from Facebook and Twitter appear. The brand has also just announced that it wants to become the ‘mobile leader’ among brewers.

Believing that experience is as important as the drink, Guinness launched The Tasting Rooms so visitors can have fun pulling themselves and their friends a pint

Belvedere’s Smith says: “I think we still appreciate sharing knowledge one-upmanship with our friends, the idea that we have learned something and want to share it to make us and others feel good; a shared experience.”

Some brands are ahead of the curve in noticing nuances in consumer behaviour, such as new attitudes towards ownership of material goods.

In a feature in New York Magazine, Taxi app Uber alludes to the death of ownership and aims to exploit the trend, for example, by renting a barbecue to someone who does not want to own one but would like to use it for a day.

Car rental company ZipCar also taps into the death of ownership trend. At a Marketing Society event last year, Creativity for Commerce, ZipCar’s president Mark Norman explained how the company turned what was a sacrifice – not having your own car – into something aspirational.

Norman says: “For cars to be paid for 24/7 but only used on average for just over an hour a day, and city cars even less, something is wrong with the maths. People are spending hundreds of pounds for the assurance that the car is there when they want it. But we sell assurance and trust that people can get wheels when they want them – from us.”

According to Norman, people no longer have to buy a “compromise vehicle” as ZipCar can provide a range of cars to suit their needs on any given day.

The selfless trend

It is not just the trend for providing experiences and new products or brand initiatives that have enabled consumers to enjoy having less stuff.

Meanwhile, California-based TOMS Shoes has become part of the ‘selfless’ trend with its ‘buy one, give one away’ model. It has been so successful that it has resulted in many copycats, for example Starbucks’ ‘buy one, get one, give one’ promotion.

Innovations in digital have helped people in their search for reducing their material goods. The Amazon Kindle, for example, enables people to hold a collection of books; smartphones come with a camera, a note taker, a diary and a music player; and websites such as Blinkbox, Netflix and LoveFilm remove the need for DVD ownership.

“Digital is facilitating the move away from stuff because you don’t need to carry a diary or a notebook or a camera, you just need your phone,” says Wallman. “DJs now turn up with just a laptop – when I was a kid they’d have boxes of records.”

However, there is a counter trend going on. Wallman gives an example from the music industry: while more people are streaming music, rather than owning it, through services such as Spotify, there has also been “a surge in people buying records – they still want things to have and hold, just not so much of it”. Indeed, in October last year the British Phonographic Industry reported that sales of vinyl LPs crossed the half a million mark in 2013 for the first time since 2003, at 550,000 sold.

What’s clear from the ‘stuffocation’ trend and from the statistics from eBay and Gumtree where people are selling gifts on the day they receive them, is that people are feeling the strain of consumerism.

Having so much stuff advertised, pushed and sold to consumers is no longer so palatable to people, but having a brand experience they can share and be seen doing with friends and family is. The commodity has moved on from stuff to experiences.

Wallman says: “People aren’t looking to get status, happiness or identity and meaning from stuff anymore, they are looking to get those things from experiences.

“If a brand understands that, it will rework its retail, its products and its positioning because the brand that we want to buy from, connect with and be involved with is the one that makes us feel happy, that fits in with what we believe, and is the one that gives us meaning and the identity that we want.”

The unwanted gift report

8 in 10 Brits would consider reselling an unwanted gift

£2.4bn The value of unwanted gifts Britons are ‘sitting on’

£31 The average resale price of a toolbox alone on eBay. The most unpopular gifts are tools and DIY-related presents.

Source: eBay and Gumtree

Stuffocation explained 

Stuffocation is the title of a book by James Wallman which claims that people are being suffocated by stuff. The book details how and why people have had enough of material goods and are now seeing the value of experiences.

Wallman says stuffocation is “the feeling you get when you open the doors to your wardrobe and it’s bursting with things but you can’t find something to wear. It’s the feeling that many people get these days when people give you something and it’s beautifully wrapped, and your gut reaction isn’t thanks but why on earth do you think I want something else.

“In our very busy, very cluttered lives more isn’t better any longer, it’s worse.”



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