It’s been more than a year since we first heard of COVID-19. But this doesn’t mean dealing with a global contagion has gotten any easier. If, at any time during the past year, you’ve found yourself stuck at home rethinking life as you know it — you’re not alone. According to consumer brand expert Martin Lindstrom, COVID-19 is now “an emotional bookmark” that has been etched into our brains, leaving us with a collective feeling of loneliness and uncertainty.
Having spent a good chunk of 2020 in quarantine, our need for real social interaction and real experiences are manifesting in our shopping behaviors — in a big way. Lindstrom, author of The Ministry of Common Sense: How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses, and Corporate BS, spoke to VICE about how he believes COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the paradigm of consumption.
We’re all touch-hungry
One of the most obvious symptoms, according to Lindstrom, is that we’re now looking for things to touch. “People have been under-stimulated with a sense of touch,” Lindstrom told VICE. “Because we haven't been able to touch anyone, hug anyone, and been in close proximity with anyone, we crave it.”
“What we know today is that there's a direct correlation between the degree which we are touched and our degree of happiness,” said Lindstrom. Touch has been found to reduce stress and strengthen emotional bonds, and often leaves us yearning for more.
In quarantine, many of us have suffered — are still suffering — from an affliction of touch deprivation also known as “skin hunger.” And this hunger has translated into an attention to tactile stimulation in material products, such as fashion trends.
“So if you buy a Louis Vuitton bag, it consists of many more layers than what it did in the past, using more fabrics [and] more materials in an explorative way, so you can let your fingers do the walk into [the] tactile universe,” said Lindstrom. Indeed, the rise of sculptural bags presents both a visual and tactile treat.
Besides fashion, people are also looking for touch within the comforts of their own home. Jigsaw puzzle sales soared to unprecedented heights amid unprecedented times. Within two weeks in early 2020, puzzle maker Ravensburger saw its sales in the United States skyrocket 370 percent year over year.
“When you really think about it, it makes sense because a puzzle is a lot of unknown bricks which you combine in an explorative way, which stimulates you. It's very tactile if you think about it,” said Lindstrom. The global jigsaw puzzle industry is expected to continue its growth in 2021.
We want experiences, not things
Beyond material goods, though, consumer habits are undergoing profound changes. While China’s luxury market saw impressive growth, sales of luxury goods — such as clothing and jewelry — have declined everywhere else. Even prior to COVID-19, the cultish minimalism movement meant that there was already a strong pull away from conventional consumerism.
“I do think it's very clear that there's been a very strong backlash against this land-grabbing of material ownership,” Lindstrom noted. “But I have to say that the amplification of this really took off with COVID.”
A thirst for wealth has been stripped down into an existential contemplation on what exactly it is we want to do with money.
“I think because people realized when you don't have any money and therefore you can't spend, or you have a lot of money but there's no way you can spend it...it really is the same,” he said.
The alternative, then, is the rise of what is known as “experiential luxury.” More people are subscribing to what Lindstrom terms the “bucket list concept.”
“People increasingly are buying holidays to destinations which are perceived as [places] you want to go before you die,” he explained.
Does this mean that materialism has been changed forever? Are we, as a civilization, beginning to wean off toxic capitalism? Probably not. Despite serving a hard blow to the luxury market, COVID has also presented a golden opportunity for hungry businesses. Pandemic products, like face masks, are now luxed-up. Meanwhile, e-commerce has been having an absolute field day.
“People have been shopping and continue to shop because there is no other option,” said Lindstrom, who described online shopping trends as “pretty linear.”
But, he believes that the shared pandemic experience has inspired people to rethink mindless consumerism.
“Consumption is still there because you want to maintain the feeling of aggregating stuff, but I would also claim that as soon as we go back to normal across the world…consumption is moving away from retail stores to experiences instead. And people really want to have true experiences rather than just consuming,” he said.
OK, experience good, materialism bad. Now what?
So the pandemic has made people realize the importance of experiences over material possessions. This is all easy to articulate within the comforts of our own homes, when “normal” life seems to be locked away in limbo. But how can we take these lessons with us into a post-pandemic world?
Lindstrom provides three pieces of advice, both for material consumption and for life.
First, “don’t be fooled,” he said. “Consumption is an immediate release of dopamine in your brain, which will make you feel good in the moment. But it's not going to last forever.” If you really think about it, the pursuit of materialism is really a reflection of a deep, intimate, emptiness. Studies have shown that sporting conspicuous retail brands are often a symptom of lower self-esteem.
The second advice is the old adage of carpe diem. “I don't think there is the luxury of time to defer a moment, which means you have to live in the now,” he said. Of course, he admits, that this is easy to say but difficult to execute, especially when faced with the palpable pressures of social expectations. But the awareness that experiences matter, probably more than material possessions, is a start for us to recalibrate the balance between our material and spiritual desires.
Lindstrom’s third and last piece of advice is probably the most tangible — wean yourself off your digital addiction. “Boredom is the foundation for creativity, the moment where you can reflect and combine dots and see the world in a different perspective,” he said. But with the inundation of digital distractions, we’re never bored anymore. Most of us have whipped out our phones in the middle of dinner table chit-chat to scroll our social media feeds or read the latest news, reluctant to leave any room for ambiguity. In this digital age, thinking and remembering has simply become too tiresome for our hyperactive brains.
Of course, this isn’t to say that you should throw your phone in the trash right now — though if you feel like doing so, why not? What we can do without going to the extreme, according to Lindstrom, is to set boundaries with our electronic devices. “You can say to yourself ‘every Sunday is without a phone. Every evening is without a phone’,” he said.
So, maybe it’s time we rethink what it really means to “splurge” on happiness. If the pandemic has taught us anything about what really matters in life, it’s that the answer probably isn’t material.