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15 February 2010

There are people who are writing about a reformed character — “the Grounded Consumer” — who is a post-recession personality behaving differently than his or her pre-recession incarnate.  This is a mythical person aggregated into a trend line for the edification of mall-developers, products developers, designers of attractions, etc.  The belief in and incorporation of this mythical presence might prove useful for museum administrators as they plan their programs and marketing strategies.[1]

The amalgam characteristics of the grounded consumer (repeated and paraphrased here) are as follows.  He or she:

  • No longer lives beyond his/her means. The grounded consumer will be borrowing less and saving more than in the past.
  • Views “Less” as the new “More”.  There is social status among their peer group about owning less stuff. 
  • Is “destuffifying” his/her home by giving possessions away.
  • Is intentionally shopping less and therefore the browsing of shopping areas as entertainment is downplayed.
  • Is a more focused shopper and only with a purchase in mind.  Shopping is a more purposeful activity which consumes less time than before. 
  • Is more focused on getting good value, reassessing need and researching possible products prior to shopping. 
  • Places a higher value on family and community activities than before the economic turndown.
  • Is shifting from an egocentric “Me Economy” to a socially conscious “We Economy” which values a collective-driven notion of community and working for the common good.
  • Places far greater importance social and emotional benefits. Will seek offerings that promise greater meaning.
  • Wants to enjoy life and make time for fun and shared experiences.
  • Wishes to engage in (or collect) more experiences. Thus will ask for gifts of experiences (travel, theatre, lessons) rather than receiving material possessions. Values expenditures that deliver long-term outcomes, things that make them smarter, better off and healthier.
  • And in this age of ecological awareness they are looking for real over synthetic experiences.  A return to the family outing in the woods, as it were. 

In summary the grounded consumer is looking for authentic family and social pleasures that don’t break the bank — or take them to the mall.

There is an associated (also mythical) consumer called the “Concerned Consumer” who prefers to buy from companies whose social concerns inform policy decisions.  The concerned consumer researches the social values of the company. [2]  Socially conscious companies therefore convert their philosophy to an economic asset. 

The description of these consumers may be based on little more than an aspirational myth.  Nevertheless there are test marketers, researchers, and corporations who are already creating products and activities for this person and his or her family.[3]

Shopping malls have long researched and experimented with e activities that enhance the net profitability of the overall shopping experience. [4] Now some malls faced with declining attendance, and struggling with something they call the “dead mall” syndrome, are trying to reinvent themselves as life-style socially conscious experience centers.[5] 

What does the identification of the grounded and concerned consumer mean for museums?  First the obvious, that the new grounded consumer is looking for meaningful experiences — and we offer that in spades.  We always did.  What is potentially different now is that maybe the slightly shell-shocked post-recession consumer will (re)discover us and will consider museums a replacement of some of the mall destination activity for the family.  Maybe this visitor is our post-recessional social-service opportunity! 

But they will not necessarily come unless we are obvious about our marketing, directing the consumer to us because we say clearly we are the place to go for social and educational interactions that will be bonding, fun, worthwhile and experiential.  The message is really just a variant on what children’s museums have been saying for years.

The other obvious need is to look at the upfront cost and to create a new economic strategy that opens our doors for free and gathers the income from spending opportunities that surround our core experience.  Lots of museums are experimenting with free times and passes which are used by the organized consumer. [6] [7]I remain convinced that reliance on our admissions income is antithetical to a convincing projection of social responsibility for this newly identified client.

Are museums recognizing this emerging social awareness and capitalizing on it?  Some museums are, but most are not.  (See the brilliant article written by Adrian Ellis for the Art Newspaper, almost a year ago, to discover why.)  It may be that American museums cannot appeal to their local citizenry in terms that match local needs for fear of disenfranchising their affluent funders.  A simple situation of “upstairs/downstairs.”

Since museums have long argued that they were a social and educational good (without much success) we may not be able to capitalize on this trend either.  The reason may be, and we don’t like to admit this, that we have always been a voyeuristic substitute for shopping.  Window shopping at a high level if you will. 

So what can we take from this research about our newly chastened, thrifty and focused potential users?  Directors and museum marketers need to read and digest the research about the grounded consumer and see where it applies.  Then we will need to become overt in our appeal, and formulate alternative economic and programmatic plans that appeal to these new needs.  There are folks out there that might really want to use and reuse us given their new balanced priorities.  Can we meet them halfway?? 


[1] http://www.eatertainmentvenues.com/Grounded_Consumer.pdf

[2] http://www.co-operative.coop/membership/news/ConcernedConsumerIndex/Post.aspx

[3] Robbie Blinkoff Interview: Recession, Grounded Consumer and Joy | Recessionwire

[4] http://business.fullerton.edu/FInance/jrepm/pdf/vol08n03/05.239_254.pdf

[5] Market Creek Plaza - San Diego, CA

[6] New York City Museum Free & Pay What You Wish Days

[7] At Your Library: Local museum passes at the click of a mouse - Harwich, MA - Harwich Oracle