Sunday, January 4, 2015

Ease, Freedom, and Change

“Honey, guess what?! The paint store was having a big sale, so I bought enough paint to repaint the whole house, inside and out!!”

Ha. Obviously, there is something wrong in the story embedded in the line above. There is an error of emphasis. Painting a house is an outcome that depends less on the purchase of paint than on a highly labor-intensive process of moving furniture, covering, masking, painting, and much more. That effort is an order of magnitude bigger than the cost of the paint, even if you add in all the other materials and equipment. For someone to buy 200 gallons of paint without stopping to think about the way they might be spending their next 75 weekends painting, is just —

Well, it’s a twentieth-century mistake, and the twentieth century is over. We’ve learned that “consuming” a product inevitably involves some degree of work or commitment of time. If we’re talking about furniture, for example, you might choose to carry a big, blocky object that weighs as much as you do into your home. You’ll need to enlist the help of a couple of other people to accomplish that. Another approach is to take the furniture home in pieces and assemble it there. That makes the carrying easier, but then you have to be good with tools like wrenches and screwdrivers. If you don’t want to do the work yourself, you can have the furniture delivered by professionals, but this requires a major time commitment, usually of a two- or three-hour delivery time window, but with the understanding that this can easily stretch into four hours or longer. You might buy furniture one time without thinking about the logistics, but having done so, you wouldn’t make the same mistake the next time.

In general, we’ve wised up. There are still plenty of businesses trying to sell us stuff we don’t necessarily have time for, more than ever I suppose, but we don’t get taken in as easily as we might have 25 or 50 years ago.

I think this is the trend I am seeing with the many signs of easing time pressure I have seen in this year’s Christmas shopping season and continuing up to the present. The easing time pressure is related to the easing financial pressure, of course. We expect that a recession leads to a burst of time pressure as consumers look for cost-cutting measures, most of which, of course, require extra time in one form or another. As the financial pressures of recession ease up, consumers eventually can relax again, and time pressure should, in theory, ease up.

But that is only the beginning of what is going on now. Consumers are feeling less pressure, and at the same time are properly skeptical of product claims that may involve a hidden time commitment. If the time it takes to learn to use an impressive-looking new product could plunge you right back into the time pressure that you are just easing out of, you’ll tend to postpone the purchase until you have the time available — if that ever happens. This is the pattern I believe I have observed among the Christmas shoppers I have seen. It explains how people can feel so at ease with their purchases without actually buying very much.

Modern economic thought holds that there is no end to the things that people want. When this axiom was formulated, though, it was not so easy to imagine the way that consumers’ schedules could so fill up. Our wants may be insatiable, but there are only so many hours in the week. Perhaps it is a situation that would call for more time-saving products, but that too has its limits. Every form of time-saving is a technique that has to be learned, and that learning takes time. Recall that time management was a fad of the 1990s that ultimately failed because the time management systems themselves took up too much time. The Internet has brought us no end of new low-cost ways to keep in touch with the world, but every new thing we do takes away some time. We adapted initially by sleeping less, but that obviously didn’t serve, and people are being more conscious now of protecting their sleep hours. We are getting better at deleting irrelevant content and turning away from new demands on our time.

I expect big changes in 2015 because of consumers who have a newfound sense of ease and freedom about their time. When people finally have a little bit of time on their hands, one of the first things they will think to do is to find solutions for all the problems and irritations they have had to put up with for the last five, ten, or fifteen years. If that is the direction people are going in, it will lead to changes across the board, changes that no corporation, no matter how big its market research and advertising budgets, can predict or control.