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Jeffrey Miller: Christmas present

Date: 9th Dec 09

BY now, anyone reading this will have reached their absolute limit on the subject of gift giving and getting, in, as they say, the Year of Our Lord, 2009. As the harrowing last 12 months of the tempestuous Noughties draw to a close, the high-pitch bling-shriek of the glossies and the colour supplements, the clutter clatter on the high streets and the insidious whine of e-trade seem – unless you are a Bonus Banker of course – to be falling on tone-deaf ears.

Haven’t retailers heard? Flat is the new black! Time to be a little humble, merchants, or there will be only humbug! The shop-a-hols will no longer serve to cure all ills as formerly conspicuous consumers, battered but wiser, and with a new perspective on taste and value, seem willing to spend it, but with far more discretion than in Christmases Past. Great lessons are to be learned from this particular season about consumer mood and choices, and better how to make Christmas Future’s jingle bells ring. One thing is certain, extra glitter and the bacchanal of materialist fantasy can no longer divert entirely, even temporarily, consumer attention from our current woes. As Luxury Briefing Conference attendees considered recently, the unsustainable growth patterns (including the all-important and guilt-inducing retail ‘numbers’) that seem to have gotten us into such a very merry mess, are so VOP: Very Old Paradigm, that is.

Among an increasing number of new books on the subject, Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson examines our worst failure of economic growth since the Second World War and various options for dealing with it. The emerging crisis of past-peak oil reserves has re-kindled new thinking, as the Financial Times reports, “…the sense that our prevailing economic model is bankrupt, allied to fears that the world is heading for catastrophic climate change, has stoked demands for a radical re-think of the guiding principals of modern capitalist democracies.”

Will all this shifting even affect the tradition of gifting as a civilised way to celebrate the year-end religious dates on the calendar? Some families have called off the booty trade altogether in favour of travel budgets to bring people close. Friends are exhibiting a kind of reverse snobbery by favoring homespun presents from country fairs over fancy label cashmere… in a box. At this point everyone thinks it’s chic to recycle wrapping paper and ribbon. The mad glam department store windows with sleighs-full of party animals in dominatrix footwear and punk hairdos seem especially not to reflect the realities of this year and this moment. Is a single precious item spotlit on a simple background a better message for the new decade? Do retailers even have a message? Except for Go Donner Go Blitzen Go!

The hotspot for a radical rethink on gift-giving is Genevieve Vaughan’s web site She has devoted her professional life to understanding principles of what she calls the Gift Economy and her theories have been recently undergoing a great resurgence. Can and will luxury and retail executives understand the evolving customer base, observe the mounting evidence and stretch their thinking outside of the box, so to speak? Not only to figure out what doesn’t sell and what doesn’t work, but also what doesn’t resonate. For how to gauge the latter, outside help may be necessary; some of the most important next steps may not make sense from a businessman’s limited perspective. It’s change or be changed!

Change is the new ka-ching.

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