Made in America: Competitive Consumerism

It’s undeniable: here in America, we take our shopping seriously. Even in the face of the most serious economic recession in decades, people still love shopping for anything they can, or even can’t, afford. In fact, “love” might not really begin to fully explain the obsessive-compulsive relationship many American consumers have with their favorite brands, product lines and gadgets. This kind of overzealous customer loyalty can lead to restless, pushy, and sometimes even violent crowds.

It is not surprising that as part of the kick-off to the holiday season, the oh-so-American passion for gluttony, self-indulgence and vigorous over-spending expands not just in the kitchen but in the wallet and out into the public sphere. The incident from this past Black Friday demonstrates just how willing some consumers are to do whatever it takes to purchase what they want. The key word here, of course, is “some.” To what extent are these somewhat isolated incidents whose frequency are nevertheless marginally increasing representative of shifting consumer behavior norms in America? What approach can be taken to handle these incidents in trying to identify the line between healthy consumer competition and dangerous shopping situations?

Sure, it might seem like an extreme example, and it is. But every year during major holiday sales, special releases and limited-time-only events you’ll find a throng of people waiting anxiously to be the first to see, try, or buy insert-cool-new-item-here. And when this cool-new-item has limited availability, some consumers seemingly will do whatever it takes to get their hands on it. You’ve heard about competitive marketing. Enter competitive consumerism.

An incident late last week in Orlando, Florida served as a prime example of customers anticipating the midnight release of a new, limited edition Nike shoe shortly before the commencement of the NBA All-Star weekend festivities. What was even more surprising than the actual customers themselves – who reportedly ran across a parking lot to be closer to the actual store after being contained across the street by police – was the immediate and somewhat overdone, though perhaps well-meaning, response of the entire police force of Orlando. When all was said and done, more than 100 police officers dressed in riot gear, on motorcycles and horses, as well as a helicopter, rushed to the scene to diffuse the situation.

On one hand, given some of the more violent shopping events that have occurred in the past calendar year, such as the Air Jordan release, it’s understandable that security forces in Orlando would be determined to prevent serious injuries or disturbances outside the Nike store on Friday. However, one must consider how necessary the deployment of such an intense number of police officers and resources was really necessary for a crowd (whose size is currently undisclosed) just eager to buy some cool kicks. As a major city, surely Orlando needs the services and protection of its police in much more serious situations in the wee hours of a Friday? Though consumer behavior trends are in some ways cause for more and more concern, what could half of those police officers been doing, or helping with, or maybe even saving or preventing, if they weren’t all dressed up in riot gear outside a shoe store? What dangers were left to permeate the streets of Orlando while a large police force dallied with a group of shoppers?

To be sure, the potential for serious violence in shopping situations exists and has been demonstrated many times, and a town or a city, or even a government, has a responsibility to its people to regulate such situations to be as safe as possible. But at what price? Couldn’t the time and resources allocated to this one instance of Nike fan anticipation have been better directed towards any of the other more serious problems Orlando faces, like crime, homelessness, and violence?

So, yes, the behavior of American consumers sometimes can seem out of hand, uncalled for, irresponsible, and even dangerous. But what’s just as important to consider is the quality of the response of officials in their ability to effectively regulate and control these situations. A thoughtful discussion can easily be had about American priorities and the appropriateness or rationality of certain shopping behaviors. What people aren’t really talking about, though, is what role security officials can play in alleviating these situations, what they’re not doing well, and what more they can do to respond to shopping conflicts in a way to maximize functionality and success while maintaining security to an appropriate scale. In the end, how can we define some healthy consumer competition that’s good for our economy, and behavior that warrants strict, even forceful responses from security and police personnel?