I grew up in St. Louis, where citizens take civic pride in the shopping experience. On my recent trip, when I asked friends and relatives why they liked living in the St. Louis area, every one said, 'Oh, it's so easy to shop. Everything is so convenient.' And they're right, which is why I always go shopping whenever I return. But, it turns out, even shoppers can't go home again.
Consuming in St. Louis has changed drastically since the days when I was a tax deduction. Shopping there now is much like shopping anywhere else. The national specialty chains - The Gap, Ann Taylor, The Limited, Eddie Bauer, Victoria's Secret, The Body Shop - offer the same merchandise in my hometown as they do in yours. But even as St. Louis consumers are being offered the same choices as everyone else, consumers everywhere are finding they have more ways than ever to set themselves apart.
For several years there's been talk about the fragmentation of the marketplace, a splintering into ever smaller niches and subgroups. Soon, we are told, the mass market will consist of 250 individuals, each requiring a specialized pitch. But as I roamed the malls of St. Louis and strolled past those ubiquitous national stores, the marketplace sure seemed homogeneous to me. The only fragmentation that appeared to be going on 'out there' was taking place inside the consumer's head.
I didn't even have to walk into a store to learn how consistent the buying experience has become. At a dinner just after my arrival, one of my cousins - a copywriter at Bozell/Chicago - asked me where I shopped. I glanced at my clothes and realized they all had been bought from national chains. 'The same places you shop,' I admitted.
A couple of days later, I went to the Galleria, one of three major malls within 20 minutes of my parents' suburban home. To my provincial New York eyes, the Galleria is a phantasmagoric vision of choice and convenience. I could describe it to you, but why bother? If you're a typical American consumer, you've been there. That's what homogeneity is about. Bill Clinton, after all, spent the other November holiday (the big shopping feast the day after Thanksgiving) at a Galleria, too, except his was in Glendale, Calif.
Of course, such sameness wasn't always the case. I can still remember when a local department store (since swallowed by the Dillard's chain) was the only structure on the real estate where the Galleria now stands. It was the kind of place where middle-class people bought medium-priced, 'Midwestern' clothes. If hungry shoppers wanted a break they had two choices: the tea room on the top floor or the counter at a neighboring Woolworth's.
Today, Dillard's is just one of three department store chains represented at the Galleria, along with the usual specialty retailers. Now when shoppers want something to eat, they choose from a courtyard of fast-food counters selling national cuisines invented by ethnic groups that don't even exist in St. Louis. Or they go to restaurants with coyly generic names like the California Pizza Kitchen, where they can order a pizza with the requisite sun-dried tomatoes and multi-syllabic Italian cheeses and choose from three varieties of coffee: decaf, house blend and hazel nut. Woolworth's, if I recall correctly, didn't have a house blend.
Please don't write from Atlanta or Minneapolis to say you have the same, or more, or better in your shopping centers. No doubt you do. That's precisely the point. These choices have become the engine behind the nation's homogenization. But just as malls have become the great leveler - a place that is Anywhere, USA - they have also become the great separater - a place where shoppers can express many consumer identities.
At the Galleria I can be environmentally conscious and buy bath oil at The Body Shop or pricey perfume at Lord & Taylor's. In one of my shopping bags there might be a push-up bra from Victoria's Secret. In another, outdoor gear from Eddie Bauer.
In today's retail environment, any single consumer can belong to a single mass market at any given time. Changing affiliations is as easy as strolling 200 yards in the Galleria. It's not that the great fabric of the mass market has been torn into millions of little pieces. It's that consumers' psyches have become so fragmented. And they can take all their fractured identities wherever they go - because the businesses that serve those identities are everywhere they go.
And a good thing, too. I ended up returning half the stuff I bought in St. Louis, anyway. Back in New York, of course.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)