The Consumer Republic: A Touch Of Class

In this golden age of market democracy, the return of steerage is a symptom of a consumer economy without a middle.
I was rushing to catch a flight to a destination I rarely visit on an airline I rarely use. So I was thrilled to see a scant customer or two waiting for an agent at the ticket counter. I was striding toward the front of the line when a pert customer service representative stopped me. Was I a member of the Golden Wings club? The Sky Master program? Did I have an Airborne Aristocrat platinum card? No? I was just a regular passenger with a full-fare coach ticket? “Oh, you’ll need to check in over there,” she sadly informed me, pointing to a distant bay of counters where a long line of huddled masses shuffled through a maze of ropes, as if piling on to the steerage deck of the Titanic.
Traveling this holiday season, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the Titanic. In particular, the scene which shows up in every version of the story, of the poor saps in steerage, ankle-deep in rising seawater. They desperately rattle the locked hatches that keep them below decks while their betters grab all the good seats on the lifeboats. On airplanes, by contrast, the riffraff is separated from the barons of business class by a cheesy curtain. But the airlines have found other ways to let their passengers know that they are not all created equal.
Maybe it’s those icy plastic bags the stewards toss at coach passengers like food for the seals. Or it’s the banana-cicles and half-defrosted, reconstituted turkey sandwiches inside. Perhaps its knowing that up front, business-class passengers in their newly upgraded compartment have extra-lumbar support in their sleeper seats. Meantime, the person in front of you, reclining the back of her seat six inches, presses your open tray table into your thorax.
These days, coach air travel, like many mass services in our niche economy, is less a travel option of the broad middle class and more like going steerage. Oddly, the resurrection of steerage class can be traced to the marketplace’s growing obsession with, of all things, “customer service.” Armed with unprecedented knowledge about who their customers are, what it costs to lure and retain them and the amount of profit that can be gleaned from each kind, marketers have learned to make distinctions between consumers much as an Edwardian aristocrat could distinguish between a born gentleman and a petty shopkeeper.
The real money is made from the business traveler and the repeat customer. Thus, more and more resources, conveniences, comforts and options get thrown their way. But as the great mass of infrequent flyers traveling home for Christmas are sure to discover, the rarely acknowledged corollary of special service for special customers can be the degradation of service for everyone else.
In this golden age of market democracy, the return of steerage class and its last-in-line-for-the-lifeboats ethos are symptoms of a consumer economy without a middle, one consisting of Wal-Mart and Saks Fifth Avenue and nothing in between. Goods and services once came in three grades: premium, economy and in-between. Today, they’re much more likely to rank premium, subpremium–then plunge to the lower decks.
Nor is this true only in service businesses such as air travel or retail. You see this gap in manufactured products themselves, as I discovered while shopping for a dishwasher to replace a broken 10-year-old model of the same brand. I had three choices.
On the bottom rung was a minimalist model with just three washing options, far fewer than the quaint, push-buttoned machine I was replacing. At the top, costing almost twice as much, was a machine as complex to program as a VCR, with must-have features such as a 155-degree Fahrenheit sanitizing rinse cycle, so convenient for those occasional E-coli bacteria outbreaks.
In the “middle” was a model that did everything the deluxe version did, and cost 20 percent less–although its only discernable difference was a less techno-chic control panel. The machines themselves, the salesman admitted, were identical: Each model had the same guts, dish racks and stainless steel interior (stainless being the avocado of ’90s appliance fashion).
Which model did this middle-class consumer purchase? The “middle” one, of course, a slick, black Darth Vader of a dishwasher. True, it has more options than I’ll ever use. But the only alternative was downward mobility to the steerage model, and what middle-class consumer wants to settle for that?
Being a cynical shopper, I suspected that the dumbed-down steerage model existed only to make the subpremium model seem necessary, while the first-class machine served to make it seem like a bargain–the same way business class seems reasonable next to first class. But the ploy worked. Thus, a member of the middle class goes “upscale.” In our classless consumer society, it’s either that or take your seat in the ship’s hold.