Monday, May 10, 2021

Not Feeling the Snap-Back

One of the reputable theories about the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is that activity will rush back to previous patterns as soon as people are free to do so.

In this argument, the pandemic is like a hurricane or earthquake. Eventually power, roads, and traffic lights are restored. When that happens, people in most households can forget that the disruption ever occurred. They can go right back to their previous plans.

Never mind that the pandemic never did close roads or take out power. The response at the end is theorized to be the same.

People’s theorized haste and eagerness to return to their previous patterns is described in several metaphors. One of these is “snap back,” which in physical terms describes the behavior of an extended rubber band when pressure on the center is released.

For me, today ought to be the snap-back day. I was fully vaccinated on Friday afternoon, so three days later, I am supposed to have a good working approximation of the full protection of the vaccine. At the same time, I have recovered well from the 24-hour fever that the vaccine gave me. Today for me is the closest thing to an all-clear signal that an individual consumer can have in a pandemic. According to the snap-back theory, I should be going shopping.

But I am not feeling it.

Food would be my top priority, but I still have some of the food I bought last month. I have fallen into a rhythm of grocery shopping 3 or 4 times a quarter. It is impossible to drum up any urgency in me on that topic anymore.

A year ago my friends and I were talking about the restaurants we would want to go back to when we could. Now there seems no urgency about that — and in the meantime, most of those restaurants have closed permanently.

It would make a certain kind of sense that I would want to buy clothing after having gone more than a year with virtually no clothing purchases. The last clothing item I bought was the race T-shirt from the virtual race I entered in October.

But as I have explained elsewhere, I have consumed virtually no clothing during the lockdown. Given the perfect chance to wear my stained and torn but otherwise comfortable clothing, I have worn it almost every day. I wore a pair of walking shoes until they fell apart, then I taped them up and wore them a little longer. These are things you can do when you know you’re not leaving the house on a given day. Adding 100 days of wear to my badly stained jeans has hardly changed them, and meanwhile, my better clothing is as fresh is it was in February 2020. The extended time I spent at home has given me the chance to organize my clothing. It is all in one room now, and that helps me understand how truly excessive it is in almost every category. So I am reluctant to go buy more of the same.

I have a shopping list and some wish lists, but the urgency I felt about shopping before the lockdown is no longer there.

And if I am having this reaction after a relatively benign lockdown experience, it can hardly be much better in the households where household members or close relatives died or have spent months in the hospital.

That is not a small number of households. At this point, it seems statistically safe to say that everyone in most countries in the world has lost at least one distant relative to illness in the last six months. If one death can dampen a person’s shopping impulses for a year or two, what will be the effect of the largest wave of deaths in the history of humanity?

Okay, I’ll calm down. No one really knows how these patterns will generalize in the current circumstance because this is a circumstance that has never been seen before.

The point here, though, is that I should be the perfect example of the snap-back consumer, the person who, after a year of being prevented from shopping, is free to go shopping again today without any undue worries. I am the perfect case, today specifically, for the theory of pent-up demand being released — and today I spent nothing.

There is another issue around the idea of pent-up demand, and that is how much the world has changed in a physical sense. The vaccine clinic I attended three days agao was in a mall. I walked halfway around the mall only to find that the clinic could be reached only through an outside entrance. While in the mall, though, I passed some 50 closed stores compared to only one that remained open. A person in my position today who had rushed out to the mall or to their favorite restaurant would, at least, meet with frustration. Shopping habits are constructed on the idea of going to a specific place to buy a specific kind of thing. When that is no longer passible, the habit is broken, regardless of how eager the shopper is.

I don’t see why I would not eventually go back to shopping and spending as much as I did before, but it will not be a quick or easy process. I wlll have to start from scratch — to figure out what I want to buy, then to figure out where I can buy it. My shopping experience of the past decade will not help me very much over the next couple of years as I sort out my new shopping patterns. I will be acting more like someone who is only now learning how to shop.

This is not the stuff that a snap-back effect is made of.