August 20, 2011

The Dollar-Store Economy (and a Chance to Unload, God Bless You!)

Dollar Store Economy Tim Davis

In an extended NYT Mag feature on the rising fortune of “dollar stores,” I had to admire how the the article splices today’s “financial anxiety” with America’s shopping compulsion (raised to the level of a patriotic imperative after 9/11) to coin a new cultural and commercial term, “the New Consumerism.”

If depressing, it’s no surprise (given the Times demographic) that the piece is, in fact, geared to the well-heeled:

“What’s driving the growth (of dollar stores),” says James Russo, a vice president with the Nielsen Company, a consumer survey firm, “is affluent households.”

The affluent are not just quirky D.I.Y. types. These new customers are people who, though they have money, feel as if they don’t, or soon won’t. This anxiety — sure to be restoked by the recent stock-market gyrations and generally abysmal predictions for the economy — creates a kind of fear-induced pleasure in selective bargain-hunting.

Combine the motivations of “savings as sport”; the instinct to actually hedge against economic armaggedon, and also the voyeuristic thrill of foraging for-a-day as a true lower-economic-class citizen (when do they start the group excursions?), it’s no surprise the vivid, colorful and profoundly mundane accompanying photos are loaded up with irony.

Of course, this wonderfully horribly photo (uhh, the pink sleeve; hey, where’s the scouring pad party?!), as a one-liner, is a snide commentary on the value of a buck (or a hundred) these days. Beyond that, though, there is something unique and clever about this picture, delivering an effect that is extremely rare, at least for an editorial photo. As soon as you understand what you’re looking at, and spurred by “the prompt” on the box, you don’t just register this photo conceptually, you also process it behaviorally, as it invites to feel yourself blowing your own discharge into the Benjamin.

And that part of the viewing experience — giving us the chance (mentally evoking this universal tactile reflex) to explode in our own little way in response to this f-upped economy, is, yes, a cheap pleasure.

(Tim Davis for The New York Times)

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Michael Shaw
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