The Blog

  • July 16, 2012
  • Stuffed to the Gills

    A few years ago, Harvard Business School professor, John Quelch penned a post in which he invented the term, “middle aged simplifier” which is a person of middle age in the process of breaking down the household that raised and launched children.  This simplifier was, according to Quelch, mostly female and mostly interested in acquiring services and experiences of all types, rather than buying more products.

    Quelch’s metaphor is of selling the house in the ‘burbs and migrating to a city for its cultural attractions, restaurants and quality of life that does not include mowing the lawn or renovating the kitchen.  Now a new study from sociologists at UCLA documents the pathology behind the catharsis of simplifying.

    Researchers from UCLA’s Center for/on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) studied 32 families and their possessions and wrote “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors,” complete with pictures of over stuffed rooms and the obligatory garage that no longer accommodates a car.  The research team included archaeologists, anthropologists and other social scientists.

    Among their findings which I am quoting from UCLA Newsroom:

    • Managing the volume of possessions was such a crushing problem in many homes that it actually elevated levels of stress hormones for mothers.
    • Only 25 percent of garages could be used to store cars because they were so packed with stuff.
    • The rise of big-box stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club has increased the tendency to stockpile food and cleaning supplies, making clutter that much harder to contain.
    • The addition of costly “master suites” for parents proved the most common renovation in the homes that were studied, yet the spaces were hardly used.
    • Consistent and troublesome bottlenecks emerged in the homes, yet families rarely devoted renovation dollars to remedying these obvious problems.
    • Even in a region with clement year-round weather, the families hardly used their yards, and this was the case even among those who had invested in outdoor improvements and furnishings.
    • Most of the families relied heavily on convenience foods like frozen meals and par-baked bread, yet they saved an average of only 10 to 12 minutes per meal in doing so.
    • Fragmented dinners — those in which family members eat sequentially or in different rooms — threaten to undermine a sacrosanct American tradition: the family dinner.

    So what’s the CRM angle on all this?  In the interest of brevity, I thought I would bullet some ideas.

    • Clearly, with or without CRM, consumer society has reached a zenith and the limit to acquisition of even more stuff may just be the lack of space to store it.  The joke about expanding to fill the available space is coming home to roost (if it can find a toehold).
    • As an economic reality, if current households are literally full AND new household formation is below what would normally be forecasted AND wages are stagnant AND the consumer makes up two-thirds of consumption in America, it is hard to see how growth resumes.
    • I think you need to tease apart the ideas of hanging onto children’s toys and clothes for the “grand kids” from getting a deal on paper towels at Sam’s or Costco.  At least the towels get used up; the toys are waiting for toy Godot.
    • Our eating habits drive the obesity epidemic.

    No wonder the simplifiers were documented by Quelch; they were the leading edge of the wave.  But they were coming out just as the recession hit and now with house prices depressed the whole process might be in semi-permanent arrest.  People with big suburban homes have found it hard to get their price, which backs up the process of deleveraging the garage, which might add to the stress.

    What to do?

    Regardless of one’s ability to move house, with fewer spaces to park additional acquisitions, it would make sense that more vendors will focus on services and experiences.  Hence the software, especially the social software that helps us discover attitude and sentiment.

    Perhaps there is a silver lining and some future entrepreneurs will make money by returning usable square footage to the homestead (clutter busters?).  People armed with a dumpster and trained in the hard science of evaluating and tossing the unwanted and the exhausted or broken might become the new go-to professionals.  I can just hear Steely Dan singing “Kid Charlemagne” — “…just get it all outta here…”

    Jeff Foxworthy made many jokes and dollars defining rednecks as people with aging and non-running cars in the front yard. Turns out they were not unusual among humankind; they simply had bigger yards. There is a suburban equivalent and they need a name.  Please help!

    Published: 12 years ago

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