IF THE POPULARITY of certain TV shows is a strong indication of what Americans are really interested in, then recent cable ratings say a whole lot about what the country is really into right now. It boils down to one word: stuff. Be it old stuff, forgotten stuff, antique stuff, junky stuff, possibly valuable stuff, icky stuff, some really big stuff and, ultimately, what to do with all that stuff. Our country is awash in a sea of stuff. Why else would reality shows like American Pickers, Pawn Stars and Storage Wars consistently rank in the top 10, week after week? And let’s not forget the popular-yet-downright-disturbing Hoarders series on A&E that takes the too-much-stuff epidemic to the grotesque.
Americans have obviously accumulated enormous quantities of goods and, it appears, are interested in watching how “experts” can assist with getting rid of it—preferably for some amount of profit. As the old saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, which seems logical enough, particularly at a time of such economic hardship. Any ability to turn one’s trash into a little extra cash could very well be the difference in keeping up with monthly expenses. So is it any surprise, living in the fallout of the worst recession since the Great Depression, such thrift-based shows are popular? And like them or not, these shows are a far cry from Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous or MTV Cribs—back in America’s conspicuous “acquiring stuff ” era.
A mass purge could actually bode well for our industry. A cleaned out-closet, for example, is just that—empty. As Americans pare down and possibly earn a little spending money in the process, I’m confident they will seek to replenish. Isn’t that what a closet is for? Besides, it’s not like we will forgo shoes all together. Moreover, once stuff has been discarded, it cleanses the closet as well as the mind. Personally, whenever I make a donation to the local Salvation Army outpost, I return home with less baggage— literally and figuratively. I not only have a reason to shop for new items, but equally important, a place to put them.
The past few years have been a real slog. Americans have been forced to make do with less, stretch what they have and, in many instances, simply do without. Such rationing, hopefully, begins to ease this year. Call it a pent-up demand that’s champing at the bit. That’s exactly the sense Bob Infantino, CEO of the new Drydock Footwear and subject of this month’s Q&A (p. 20), has regarding overall consumer mood. The industry veteran and former head of Clarks Companies N.A. says there’s a growing desire—and need— to freshen up wardrobes after several seasons of austerity. It’s just one of the many reasons why he believes the company’s re-launch of Aravon and Dunham, as well as the debut of Cobb Hill for Fall ’12, is a case of perfect timing. Of course, any shopping sprees will be largely tied to job creation: More people making a paycheck equals more money available to spend. The addition of 200,000 jobs in December, according to the Labor Department, and the unemployment rate dropping to 8.5 percent—its lowest level since 2009—are optimistic signs. Hope springs eternal in this regard. Not to mention the fact that in an election year, the party in power will do everything possible to stimulate growth and hold onto the mantle. Personally, I’ll take whatever economic stimulants we can get these days.
Of course, money in a consumer’s pocket means little if there’s nothing enticing on the market. One only need look to the electronics industry to see how well some of its offerings continue to attract hordes of shoppers. Granted, a lot of those nifty gizmos take up scant space, but there is no debating that much of it is super-cool stuff.
I believe our industry is up to the challenge of being just as enticing with the products we make. And a consumer looking to update will respond well to some risk-taking. Now’s not the time to play it so safe. Shoppers are not looking for the same ole, same ole. People across America, for example, recently rioted in the streets while trying to pick up a pair of Nike’s new limted-edition Air Jordan sneakers. While I’m not an advocate for lawlessness, it’s proof that great design, limited demand and clever marketing can capture a share of the consumers’ discretionary dollar. The reality is that offering anything less these days may result in a lot of our stuff never making it into closets to begin with.