Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Decline and Fall of American Consumerism: The View from the Trenches

In my second post, I wrote that my audience for this blog was as large as the world but as small as only myself. I would now like to refine that statement a little bit or to amplify upon it. Southern California is hurting right now -- in the midst of Great Depression v2.0 -- and I would like to describe that pain and offer some of my ideas for palliatives.

As of October 22, the unemployment rate in California as a whole stood at 12.4%, according to California's Economic Development Department (EDD). And this is using the narrowest U2 measure. More expansive definitions, up to and including the widest U6 measure, suggest that the percentage of Californians out of work, working less than full time but seeking full time work, or discouraged entirely from looking could climb as high as 25%. (In other words, one out of every four Californians of working age wants to work and cannot.)

The weather here has taken a sharp turn for the worse since Thursday. Cold temperatures, high gusty winds and a chilly, miserable rain have moved into the westside and promise to remain here for the next few days at the very least. Accordingly, last night, Alma and I decided to walk at a nearby mall, rather than our beloved beach.

We arrived at the Westfield Culver City Mall -- located just off the intersection of Sepulveda and Slauson Boulevards -- at about 5:30 p.m. and walked and shopped there until about 7:30. This mall is relatively small, as these affairs go. It has three levels, the uppermost of which is a modest food court with perhaps 8-9 food choices. Because we are now walking 90 minutes each day at the beach, we also resolved to walk for 90 minutes at the Westfield Mall. In practice, this meant about six full circuits. We spent three of those circuits on the ground floor and the other three on the second floor.

And what we saw was not pretty. The many specialty stores seemed entirely devoid of customers, even customers who were only browsing. Several of the storekeepers at the smaller stores actually stood in the doorways of their stores, looking forlorn as the pedestrian traffic passed them by. Not that the big anchor stores fared much better. Best Buy and Target anchor the southern end of the mall, Best Buy on the ground floor and Target on the second floor. Even Target seemed pretty muted -- we went in there at 7 p.m. when our walk was over to buy some lingerie for Alma and I observed that many Target clerks were standing around and not doing much of anything. More to the point, there were not that many customers coming through the checkout lines. We waited exactly 30 seconds for our cashier.

JC Penney anchors the northern end of the mall, occupying both levels.  Despite running numerous televsision ads constantly, the place seemed almost empty. We saw only one family of 5-6 people going in and, more important, no one leaving carrying a JC Penney bag. How in the world can these big chain stores remain open when there is no business at all?

Macy's occupies the first and second floors in the middle of the west side of the mall. It too seemed like a ghost town each time we walked by. Simply incredible. I foresee a very bad holiday season this year, based on what we saw last night.

There are probably 5-6 specialty athletic shoe stores there and we could see no customers in any of the stores. The mall has 3 dfferent Foot  Locker variants - none of the 3 had any customers that we could see. I joked to Alma that I was thinking about selling Foot Locker stock short, so shocking was the vista. What made it more depressing was that we could see all the sales people standing around fidgeting with the merchandise, mervously re-arranging it in the various displays.

"The whole place is vibrating with nervous tension," said Alma at one point. When I asked what she meant, Alma said, "These retailers are worried about counting on the Christmas season to stay in business." Indeed, there were two places in the mall that had closed up entirely or were in the process of going out of business. Alma continued that all the other retailers who remained wondered whether closing would be their fates also.

There were a lot of people at the mall but they did not seem to be shopping at any of the retail outlets there. God knows what the  people actually were doing -- perhaps eating dinner at the food court. We seemed the only people there who were using the mall space to exercise. But there is nothing culturally redeeming about this mall, no bookstore, no movie theaters. And so, if no one is shopping at the retail outlets, there really is no reason whatsoever I can see for this mall to exist.

What we saw at the mall last night, I think, is nothing less than the decline and fall of American Consumerism writ small. There is simply no way that retail establishments, whether nationally branded or locally based, can remain open, pay their staffs even the minimum wage and meet overhead, when they have no customers. There were a few customers in line to pay at Old Navy and at Claire's. But Old Navy was selling plenty of clothing items for less than $10 and Claire's is a novelty store that appeals to young girls, The rest of the Culver City mall is like a morgue or like some character from the Undead, not yet fully aware that it has died and still going through the motions.

I am no advocate of broad consumerism, no proponent of crass materialism, and I would not be entirely heart-broken to see America start learning to make do with less. At one point in our walk last night, I turned to Alma and said, "America deserves this for electing Bush for 8 years (or for standing by while the Supreme Court installed him illegally in a bloodless coup in 2000)." But a lot of people working at the stores in the Westfield Mall were mere children in 2000 -- they had nothing to do with Bush's junta but they will end up paying for the consequences. And when I think of all the people whose employment prospects depend upon a healthy, vibrant consumer economy, and when I see what I saw last night, I cannot help feeling a bit sad for what we had before and what has passed. In posts to come, I shall offer some ideas for fixing things. But after last night, I am not sure things can be fixed.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds more bleak than it actually was. Repeatedly you would say there was nobody in a store and I would point out the one or two who were there. You were also judging the big stores by what you could see from the mall, outside, you couldn't see into the various departments to see what kind of activity might be there. Yes maybe the place didn't have the robust commercial activity one has come to expect in years past but many people are now waiting and feeling forced by thier slumping finances to attend those horrible black Friday sales. One should reserve their judgement until black Friday.