The consumerism problem

“I shop, therefore I am”, a concept made famous by artist Barbara Kruger (photo credit)

Shopping. Buying stuff. Accumulation. Hoarding.

Today “we” (first world country inhabitants) live in a consumerist society.
Unfortunately, the sophistication of retail operations is such that it becomes harder and harder to defend ourselves from their ability to sell us stuff.

There are outrageous examples out there, like De Beers (diamonds), but I want to talk about the problem in more general terms, and the easiest way for me to talk about “shopping”, “buying stuff”, “accumulation”, is to use Amazon.com as an example. Many considerations hold true for other shopping “methods”, platforms or brands, both online and offline.

[disclaimer: I have worked for Amazon Web Services Inc. (AWS) from 2008 to 2014 which, as the name suggests, it’s in a very close relationship to Amazon.com. However, my role at AWS gave me NO special knowledge about the retail business. Therefore, I can speak freely about it].

Amazon.com: love it, hate it

I have a love-hate relationship with Amazon.com.

An Amazon.com Fulfillment Center (image credit)

On one side, shopping on Amazon.com is probably the best experience available today. Usually it’s the easiest, simplest way to buy something.

On the other hand, Amazon.com is so easy to use that you end up buying much more than what you need.

There is also the false perception that Amazon.com has the lowest price compared to any other online or physical retailers, which is simply not true (read this, then this, then this, or google for hundreds more).

Amazon.com keeps framing the retail business as a “low margin” business, which is also untrue. Retail doesn’t always have small margins.
An example? A well known retail “tactic” is to “push” for products that NEED to be sold quickly — it could be products that expire; products that are soon going to be replaced by a newer version; or products acquired in a fire sale (e.g. from a company in financial distress). In these cases, margins can be really high.

The way we shop is wrong. Most of the perceived benefits are not true. Are there ways to fix it or mitigate it?

Books bought on Amazon.com

I took a look at all the books I bought on Amazon.com in 2016. And then 2015. And so on.

A sample of books that I bought recently

Of those books, some were for my wife, a few were presents for others, but most of them were for me.
After some quick math, I realized that I’ve started reading only 3/4 of them. Yes, you’ve heard me right: 25% of the books I bought have never been opened. And I have finished reading less than 20% of them.

This means that I could have spent, say, at least 30–40% less money on books, without any consequence on the things that I found time to read.

There are no stats available on how much people read. Well, Amazon.com, through their e-book reader, the Kindle, knows A LOT about it, but I’m sure they wouldn’t be too happy to divulge these numbers.

We buy stuff because it’s easy to buy stuff. And then we forget about it.

In the process we waste money, we contribute to polluting the environment, we stress our lives because we need to work more to earn more to buy more stuff that (at least in part) we don’t need.

George Carlin, the great comedian, had it right.

George Carlin said it best:

“Everybody’s gotta have a little place for their stuff. That’s all life is about. Trying to find a place for your stuff.”

Is there anything new about this?

I’m sure I’m not the first one to highlight this problem. And I won’t be the last.

However, this problem is getting worse because the companies trying to sell us stuff have even more powerful tools to convince us, and a ton more ways to measure us and optimize for what triggers our spending.

In fact, I’m not surprised that The Minimalists Joshua and Ryan are becoming well known throughout the United States, and their message of living a simpler life resonates so much with many people. A Minimalist, in a way, is someone who picks a somewhat extreme solution to fix this problem (of course, Minimalism is much more than just “removing stuff”).

How to fix it?

I have two small ideas.

  1. This is an experiment that I’ve been trying since at least 2011: when I want to buy something on Amazon.com, I put it in my cart. Then, unless it’s something that I really need to use as soon as possible, I just “move” it from the cart to “saved for later”.
  2. I haven’t tried this extensively yet, but I think it helps to spend time and effort in getting rid of stuff that we bought, but didn’t use. The few times I did this, I noticed that I bought much less than usual in the coming weeks

My wife keeps reminding me of how much better I can be at doing this. I hope I’ll keep improving!

Idea #1 has proven to be great. See below a screenshot of the 252 items that I didn’t buy (at least, not yet!). I like to think of it as a small victory.

252 items that I didn’t buy — probably because I didn’t really need them

What are your views on how we buy stuff? What other suggestions are worth considering?

If you liked this short essay, please like it and share it, and follow me — I’ll be regularly writing some (hopefully) interesting pieces in the future.

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