Here, let’s review some of the key themes, trends and expectations of 2013 by way of retail… Yes, RETAIL. For several years now I’ve found that the holiday windows of the Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York City can be used as metaphors for key themes and predictors in the coming year. They tend to point out important trends in America. So, here’s your window into 2013 via the windows of Bergdorf Goodman…
overall theme: the folly of men
The overall theme for the décor of the window display this season, entitled “BG Follies”, was the entertainment of the “Roaring 1920s”. The French called the period “années folles” (“Crazy Years”). This is fitting because I foresee that the next year will be “roaring” (i.e., active, rumbling, noisy, crashing, resounding) on many levels. Further, this year’s holiday windows showcased lavish scenes from, opulent revues of Ziegfield Follies and Follies Berger, which is also poignant. The “follie” (or “folly”) perfectly characterizes culture, fashion and consumer behavior in America right now: foolish, silly, imprudent and irrational. Before I parse each window for symbolism and meaning, here’s some background context…
happy scary New Year
We begin a new year with the US drowning in a tsunami of debt and signs of the unraveling of social safety nets. The county has a declining birthrate, dismal economic growth (2012 GDP average ≈2% ), retail sales rose only 0.1% in December attributed to stagnating disposable personal income (+1.2%) and alarming unemployment (≈8%). The US dropped 3 places in 2012 to rank #10 in the world in terms of innovation. It’s estimated that >60% of the nation is on some mood-enhancing drugs, a panacea to an epidemic of depression and mental illness.
Simmering social unrest (due to plutocracy and a vast ideological divide) is exacerbated by a broken education system (US dropped 14th place amongst OECD and G20 countries in 2012 in terms of educated citizens). This is set against the backdrop of looming European crises and Wall Street hedging that China is going to crash, taking the US down with it, and models predicting a stock market correction in 2013. Meanwhile, the nation has dire energy issues (oil dependency, fracking) and the ecosystem is broken: melting ice caps, droughts, superstorms, megafloods, and 99% of all species that once lived are now extinct (13% of birds, 25% of mammals and 41% of amphibians are currently on the “Red List”). This is not pessimism. This is startling reality.
I’m reading too many analyses from people much smarter than me that predict seismic, catalytic events (economic, social, environmental) in the latter part of 2013. Unfortunately folks, the long-term outlook for the year doesn’t look so great.
some FUNdamentals are off
- one-fith of Americans believe that making it in society is to play the lottery (National Journal)
- 52% agree “I know how to have fun” (US Monitor).
- 53% say “I enjoy and celebrate life despite its many challenges and obstacles” (US Monitor).
- 72% feel “it’s important to try things I’ve never done, even if not a successful outcome” (Yankelovich).
- The US Luxury Market is expected to report 5-7% growth in 2012 (Bain)
Many Americans think they’ve dodged a bullet and have come out of the past decade OK (not great, but OK). They think they’ve “course corrected” and traded-up/down/off. To wit, 56% say “they have reprioritized their lives” (Monitor). Americans feel they’re now on track; 84% say “they will keep doing cost cutting strategies they’ve adopted” (Yankelovich). But, I wonder is it good enough?
I’d wager money that one of the ruling emotions of 2013 is “guilt”. Paradoxically, Americans deep down seem to know their behavior is frivolous and wanton because they recognize the signs, for example:
- 65% feel we are at a turning point in history: “land of opportunity” becoming the “land of disappointment.” (US Monitor)
- 57% think “America is on the decline as a civilization (Fox News)
- 31% say “the challenges facing the country are so serious that America might not be able to overcome them (Allstate/National Journal)
- Only 42% say the “country is heading in the right direction (ABC News/Washington Post)
- 65% believe another 9/11-style attack is likely in the next decade. (Rasmussen)
- Only 36% believe “they will become rich in my lifetime” (Yankelovich)
- Only 40% agree “I will be happier if less well off in the future” (Monitor)
Meanwhile, superficial marketers and trend reports herald “fun” and “play” and the “pursuit of happiness” to be the theme d’annee in 2013. Indeed, isn’t it folly when fashion and lifestyle trends are focused on indulgence and evoking decadence, when in reality there is a need for asceticism and humility?
2013: a party like it’s 1929?
So, perhaps a little madness right now is simply keeping the nation sane temporatily. Americans, weary of the stressors of the past decade, are today “partying like it’s 1929” [with a nod to Prince’s 1999]. Consumer behavior now is much like that in the Roaring 20s, which was then a backlash to austerity of the WWI years. I feel as if the energy and discontinuity of an entire decade (the 1920s) will be compressed into one year: 2013.
An affinity for the gaiety of the 20s is especially noticeable amongst nostalgic Millennials, driving trends in fringed frocks, zoot suits, bobbed hairdos and pointed half-moon manicures. The popularity of Boardwalk Empire and burlesque shows can be traced to “20s idolization”, as well as a renewed interest in Art Deco décor, artwork and jewelry. Even the wildly popular Hunger Games movie took cinematic cues from the 1920s. A spectacular Hollywood screen version of The Great Gatsby – the ultimate celebration of the Roaring 20s – is hitting theatres in 2013.
Ironic Parallels Between 2013 and 1929
It’s no wonder that 2013 resembles 1929, because there are several parallels between the two eras, for example:
Relaxed Prohibitions: Then, there was the repeal of prohibition (drinking was legalized). Today, marijuana has just been legalized in some states, with growing support for national legalization; 58% of Americans support national legalization of marijuana (Public Policy Poling).
New Technology & Networks: Then, the automobile was the new invention that connected and dispersed people, and the social emphasis was on road networks. Today, the smartphone is connecting people and giving people the freedom to disperse, with the emphasis on information traffic and social networks.
Rise of Anarchists: Then, a movement of anarchists surfaced and formed the socialist and fascist movements directed at destabilizing governments. Today, the anarchists have re-emerged but now direct their wrath at institutions and businesses rather than government (think: Occupy Wall Street and the guy who conspired to blow up the Federal Reserve).
Shifting Gender Roles & New Sexual Freedom: Then, Flapper women shorn their hair, shortened their skirts and bared their limbs to outwardly celebrate their sexuality and signal independence. Today’s “Flappers” are homosexuals; America has made great leaps in tolerance. 91% of homosexuals report that their communities have become more accepting of their sexual orientation in recent years (USE Today/Gallup).
Celebrated Exploration: Then, the great expeditions were Lindberg and Earhart’s crossing of oceans by airplane, affording new perspectives on the world from aerial views. Today, our exploration triumph is crossing time and space to land the Curiosity vehicle on Mars, while we navigate aerial views of earth and sky on Google Earth.
Paradigm-Shifting Communications: Then, communications can be characterized as the “age of audio”, with society embracing telephones, radio, phonographs and talkie movies. Today, can be called the “age of video” with society focused on screens (3-screens: phone, laptop, TV) ,video-calls (Face Time, Skype) and YouTube.
Reinvented Metropolises: Then, cities were being re-imagined and re-engineered as futuristic spaces run by machinery; the modern kitchen was invented in the 20s. Today, cities are undergoing step-changes with the introduction of intuitive technologies, robotics and smart homes and appliances.
Fixation on Criminals: Then, there was public fascination and mass media attention given to crime sprees and violence by gangers like Bugsy Malone and the G-Men. Today, society and the media are captivated by violence by individuals (Aurora, The Mall Killings, Newtown).
Mass Appeal Celebrities: Then, new urban sports stadiums and entertainment outlets (radio and movies) created personalities (celebrities) for the first time with mass appeal. Today, the masses create celebrities and athletic heroes, voting through entertainment on The Voice, DWTS, American Idol and the X Factor.
What can we learn from the past? Well, 1929 was the last year of hey-day before the Great Depression. It was a happy “blip” on the radar before a protracted “dip”. No one in 1929 predicted the stock market crash or WWII. Will America be surprised again?
windows as metaphor & allegory for 2013
This year there were five distinctive window treatments at Bergdorf Goodman’s, loaded with symbolism about major themes/trends in America. Each window was titled an “Act”. An “Act” implies play-acting (i.e., pretending, insincerity), reinforcing the point raised above about Americans feigning that everything is OK, when it isn’t.
Window 1 – ACT I: “By Request” (Unity)
The window was an aerial perspective on an all-girl orchestra, which was popular in the 20s. This symbolizes the rising numbers and power (influence and spending) of women in America. The window, with its unusual perspective, is a metaphor for American culture that has come to expect “zoom in” and “zoom out”, and unusual angles (think: the trend in Go Pro cameras). But, most importantly this window features a group. A band. A community. While so much attention is paid to online communities, 49% of Americans say they “don’t feel as close to the people in their local community as they used to” (Yankelovich); digital relationships are overpowering analog relationships. And, perhaps unity online an off line is being dismantled by another trend – self-expression – as 55% of Americans agree that it “is OK to speak my mind, even if others are offended”(Yankelovich). The paradox is that Americans crave “friends” and behave in unfriendly manner. Anticipate the dynamic of attracting and repelling people will be studied and discussed in 2013.
Window 2 – ACTII: “Naughty and Nice” (Dreams)
The window depicted a mannequin dressed as a burlesque fan dancer who peeked over her shoulder, while set against a fantastical white-on-white feather dreamscape. This window symbolizes dreams – or parodies the lack of dreams and/or dashed dreams. For today in America, 67% agree “If I had a chance to start over in my life, I would do things much differently” (US Monitor). Sadly, 50% feel “my dreams are out of reach” (Yankelovich). America is experiencing a “dream deficit”. Having dreams and realizing dreams is the foundation of the country, and will be a focal point of discussion in 2013 (along with the related topics of “entrepreneurship”).
Window 3 – ACT III: “A Cast of Thousands” (Inequity)
This window featured wo dozen showgirl mannequins ranging in height from 1ft to 6ft which stood poised for their curtain call. This window is a nod to our society consumed with social media and crowd sourcing, with its cast of thousands (and arguably performers and voices). But, most importantly, the disparity in the sizes of the mannequins represents the great social and economic divide in America. Presently, 70% feel that “economic well-being is unfairly distributed” (Yankelovich). Further, 78% agree “there is one set of rules for the rich, another for everyone else” (Monitor). Equality and democracy are tenants of America under threat and will be a theme of 2013.
Window 4 – ACT IV: “Daredevil” (Skill)
This window presented a glamorous dog trainer who directed a circus of 30 stylized dogs interacting with kluge-like mechanisms. On one hand this is a window about “control”, as Americans are seeking increasingly more control over their “have it my way” worlds. On the other hand, this display symbolizes “skill”, or lack there of. Only 39% of Americans believe they “could easily find a job if they lost their current job” (Yankelovich). While 69% feel “it’s important to be honest with yourself about strengths and weaknesses” (Yankelovich), 57% believe “it’s important to recognize when to let go and cut losses” (Yankelovich). As the world becomes more competitive, Americans will focus more on personal skill assessment and development, and the “generalist” vs. ”specialist” human resource debate will thrive in 2013.
Window 5 – ACT V: “Finale” (Engagement)
This window depicted two showgirls standing in front of a colossal distracting hypnotic rotating vortex which looked like a kaleidoscope made of blinding mirrors. Viewers had no choice but to look away or become absorbed. The window symbolizes the challenges of “attention” and “engagement” a key leitmotif of the smartphone era. Today, 50% of Americans say they “own a smartphone”, and 58% of this group say they check it every hour (Nielsen). 30% say they’ve used their phone “during a meal with others”, 39% “while in the bathroom”, and 9% “while in a religious service” (Harris Interactive). The smartphone is a great engagement tool, but there’s a risk of over-engagement in today’s society. Conversations in 2013 will swirl around connectivity and disconnectivity and the presence of mind while being connected.
additional conclusion, implications & predictions
- Americans with lower self-esteem will have more interest in projecting status. Brace yourself for increased interest in status labels/brands and designer icons in 2013.
- Americans will manifest their disappointment via criticism. Expect Americans to be more critical, demanding and discerning: “quality” and “craftsmanship” will be key themes in 2013. Also, social media will garner favor with the critic; expect more reviews and shared POVs.
- Americans feeling (or opting to be) disconnected and anti-social will reject “community” and display more ego-centrism. Micro-targeting and hyper-personalization will likely flourish in 2013.
- Future-cynical Americans will seek immediate gratification to make the most of the moment. In 2013 anticipate an emphasis on “experiences” and “thrill seeking.”
- Americans with lack of faith in “the system” will adopt pragmatic behaviors. Expect a surge in 2013 in products that enable resourcefulness and self-sufficiency.
- Americans connected to multiple screens (phone, tablet, computer, TV) 24/7 will be overwhelmed with data and options, and will seek ways to filter. Forestall curation services and filters in 2013.