Hot or Not?

by Hans Eisenbeis

Rob Walker, the Times’ estimable columnist on all things related to consumerism, seems awfully dismissive of the idea that thrift is the new black. I don’t know which set of abysmal numbers he’s not looking at — consumer confidence (in the tank), retail sales (ninth circle of hell), deflation (snake’s belly @ wagon rut) or the Fed’s hard data on personal savings rates (volcanic). Iconoculture has spent a lot of time researching this trend, and maybe we take it a little personally, but dude is being willfully clueless. Just the other day, he stood behind another contrarian fig leaf when referencing Woodward and Hall’s blog.

“‘It’s true that spending in dollars is down, but an interesting fact has escaped attention: In November, the volume of consumption rose, despite a decline in spending. The reason is that prices fell.’ So, there’s your New Thrift, eh? Just as much, if not more, stuff — but cheaper.”

I took a long look at the charts and all-too-brief analysis at the link Rob suggested, and all I can say is this: wake up and smell the recession, people. The “volume of consumption” is about the most dubious stat I’ve laid eyes on in months (and anyone who’s watched CNBC for the past year can tell you: I’ve seen some real doozies lately). It’s not seasonally adjusted, it’s not quantified in any way (uh, what’s the measurement? Transactions? Receipts? Watts? Clam shells?), and it all fails to take into account that November and December are unique months in the calendar because, oh, I dunno, I seem to recall a couple of holidays in there somewhere? When people often increase the volume of their shopping a titch? For gifts and fruitcakes and stuff? Something like that?

Anyway, the point is this: If Americans are still conducting roughly the same number of transactions (which I doubt), it does not mean that “thrift” is a hyped-up, imaginary trend. Ask Detroit how many transactions they’re seeing these days.

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, whether it’s “cool” to save or not is sort of irrelevant. People are doing it, regardless of whether it’s in style or not. Rob’s ongoing problem with “frugality chic” strikes me as a professional echo of the old “Nirvana rules / Pearl Jam sucks” argument, and it supports my theory that he’s the most Gen-X columnist in popular print these days, tirelessly obsessed with what’s authentic, cool, and contrary. (Takes one to know one.)

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