Sunday, November 16, 2008

Changes in consumer behavior (retail shopping)

The Maine Mall in South Portland was built in 1971, near the convergence of Interstates 95 and 295. The current mall site sits smack dab in the middle of what had been a large swath of marshlands and agricultural terrain, including 137 acres of which the city of South Portland bought in 1965, with an eye towards some kind of future development. The actual mall footprint sits on the former Dwyer’s pig farm.

[Photo from USM website on history of Maine Mall]

For many living in Central and Southern Maine during the late 70s, a visit to the Maine Mall was something to look forward to, particularly for me and other youngsters of my generation. At the time, “the Mall” was Maine’s only large retail amalgam.

The mall’s anchor was Jordan Marsh, which actually opened two years prior, in 1969. The enclosed shopping mall was built adjacent and connected to Jordan Marsh and was comprised of 50 stores, including Sears and Woolworth’s. A decade later, Porteous, which had been a retail and clothing mainstay in downtown Portland, opened a mall location. This was part of an early 80s growth spurt that would see the mall double in size, with JC Penney and Filene’s also arriving.

In fact, much of the attendant sprawl that is the current Maine Mall area west of I-95/295 was perpetuated during the retail explosion in that area during the 1980s. For the past 20 years, it has continued unabated. In addition to the mall, which now has 140 stores (nearly triple its original store occupancy), the 90s brought big-box giants Home Depot, Borders, Target, and the Christmas Tree Shops to the surrounding area. Included in the retail build out are cinemas, specialty stores, a host of chain eateries, as well as office space, as the growth of sprawl has been never-ending over the past three decades.


For the past six months, my wife and I have dramatically altered our patterns of consumption. After taking stock of our finances and recognizing that strict adherence to a budget was warranted, we’ve dramatically curtailed all needless expenditures. For many Americans, the economic storm clouds on the horizon have produced a kind of paradigm shift. In addition, others are looking at foreclosures, possible credit card meltdown, or even worse, bankruptcy. All of this has produced a tsunami that threatens to swamp a retail sector that’s been propped up for decades by a smoke and mirrors economy that’s come crumbling down around all of us. Only the wealthiest Americans haven’t experienced some of the residual effects.

It’s interesting, given the litany of bad news coming across the transom, particularly the nightly news, NPR, and other MSM news sources that rather than address the systemic cause of the economic crisis, many moralizers on the right (and maybe even, the left) seek to blame members of the American middle class, as they plunge into the icy, churning waters, after their own economic shipwreck.

Elizabeth Warren, a professor of law at Harvard University, has written and lectured extensively on the economic issues afflicting the middle class. Warren attributes many of the current issues (bankruptcies, foreclosures, loan defaults) on U.S. tax policy, and the escalation of the cost of living, while recognizing that the growth of middle class income hasn’t kept up with those costs.

According to Warren, compared to 1970, in 2003, a family spent less on flexible items (clothes, food, appliances, per-car costs, etc.), but necessary expenditures had increased dramatically. In 1970, less than 50% of the family’s income was spent on the “big five” inflexibly necessary items (mortgage, health care, child care, cars, taxes). This rose to 75% of the family’s income in 2003, limiting the financial flexibility of the family and increasing the likelihood of default.

While a great deal of rhetoric was expended by both sides during the presidential campaign, talking about taxes, the reality of the past three decades is that the tax burden has dramatically shifted from the wealthiest taxpayers, to the middle income families that Warren is talking about. Currently, the first dollar of the second wage earner is taxed after the last dollar of the first wage earner, resulting in taxes increasing for families by 25%. That’s on top of the following increases born by families (married couples, median incomes, two children) since 1970:

  • Families spend 76 percent more on their mortgages.
  • Families spend 52 percent more on automobiles (this is taking into consideration that although per-car costs decreased, families with two wage earners require more cars. Thus the over-all cost rose).
  • Three decades later, there are an entirely new set of costs for child care, preschool, and university, which are now seen as necessary for success. This means that families in 2003 see six more years of educational costs, that they must pay for, than they did in 1970.
  • The above-mentioned tax increases.

Do you think any of this may affect why, with the tightening of credit, the dismal retail sales forecasts for the upcoming holiday season?


As a family, we’ve virtually eliminated going-out-to eat from our budget. Technically, it’s in our budget, under entertainment, but because we’re trying to build up a rainy day fund, any money we don’t spend on entertainment (movies, out-to-eat, take out) goes into savings.

Both my wife and I used to dine out at least once per week. Add to that one or two meals eaten out (usually fast food, like a Subway sandwich, McDonald’s or Sam’s) during our workdays, and an occasional take out meal from Amato’s, or similar eateries, and it’s not difficult to see why our budget never had anything left to plug into the column under savings.

Rather than hitting happy hour on Friday nights, and then seeing a movie, our fall routine has been preparing a light meal in, and watching our weekly fare from Netflix. Both of us enjoy cooking, and we find that our own DIY cuisine tops what we were sampling, even at some of overpriced, overhyped, upscale establishments so often touted by Portland’s burgeoning foodie scene. For a quick, non-objective listing, Hugo’s, Fore Street, Five Fifty-Five, and Caiola’s come to mind.


Given that some long overdue payments finally arrived from book stores from sales of Moxietown, I decided a respite from our 10-week austerity play was warranted. After consulting my better half, we were headed for Portland on Saturday afternoon. Our plans were to visit Portland Public Library, stock up on some books, and then hazard a visit to the Maine Mall area.

Portland had been a regular haunt of mine for much of the past two decades, either for work, or for a place to go for entertainment. Since 2006, I rarely head south for much of anything—work, entertainment, or errands. I can’t say I particularly miss Portland’s faux urban vibe that many residents—typical big fish in small pond types—give off.

Across the street from the library, there was a crowd holding signs and demonstrating about something. Monument Square is a regular home for some group advocating a cause, or protesting some perceived injustice. To be fair, I’ve logged some time in the square, holding a sign and hollering about some cause that I felt was important at the time. Interestingly, my prior efforts never amounted to shit, or changed any of the causes, or injustices I was championing.

Apparently, the crowd was part of a nationwide effort set on protesting “the unprecedented stripping of rights from gays and lesbians with the passage of California’s Proposition 8, as well as the passage of anti-marriage amendments in Arizona and Florida.” [not my characterization, but from some site called Box Turtle Bulletin]

The protest, at least from my limited, casual observation (lasting the time it took me to run from the parking garage on Elm Street, to the entrance of the library, on Congress) consisted of protestors holding up a variety of signs pro-gay, or highlighting some perceived grievance, and cheering when passing cars honked in support. Very revolutionary.

Safe from the rain and the protestors of the day, the city’s best branch provided my wife and I an hour of book search bliss.

The library holds many positive memories for me. It was here that I spent countless hours scouring microfilm and old box scores, while researching When Towns Had Teams. This particular Saturday, the downstairs area, which still houses the archives of microfilm, was jammed with people using the library’s computers, or sitting in the waiting area (which now resembles the waiting area of airports, replete with a screen listing waiting times for an assigned computer), passing the minutes before their foray into cyberspace is made possible.

We left with a book bag bursting with a variety of novels, non-fiction works, and my wife’s favorite—several books on CD.

We were now off to the sprawling neon-lit retail jungle of the Maine Mall area. Shoe shopping, a break from our restaurant fast, and a stroll around the mall’s corridors awaited us.

Rather than piss away the entire proceeds from my book sales, a joint decision was made to hit a former, favorite chain restaurant, specializing in steaks. Since it was mid-afternoon, and we had both not had any lunch, we were eager for some chow. It was off to Bugaboo Creek, a steak restaurant chain that we’ve always found solid. Given that it wasn’t yet 4:00 pm, we had a nice dinner fare of red meat, smashed potatoes, and a free dessert (courtesy of an online coupon), all for less than $50. Not bad, considering a similar meal might have cost upwards of $75, or more, if we had chosen a downtown Portland establishment.


Out on the tiles at the Maine Mall is always an experience. I never can quite remove the image from my mind of the scene from “Dawn of the Dead,” when the survivors are holed up in a local shopping mall, while zombies parade outside, seeking to break in. The scene was George Romero’s critique of America’s obsession with shopping, as his brain-addled zombies, reduced to flesh-eating automatons, were merely acting on a prior shopping impulse left over from their lives.

["Dawn of the Dead" photo]

Mary and I weaved in and out between shopping “zombies,” as they waddled up and down the mall’s corridors, on our way to our own shopping destinations.

I decided to visit Best Buy to look at computers, since my outdated work computer is in need of an upgrade. I thought I’d get a sense of what might be my options, and possible costs. As has happened during prior visits, you can never find a staff person to ask questions of, and the constant din of gadgets, games, and other electronic detritus forces me to exit before I find the information I was in search of.

[Another USM website photo]

One particular phenomenon I observed was the number of teenage (and some adult) shoppers tryout out Guitar Hero, and the ubiquitous Wii games that will dominant this year’s lethargic holiday retail season.

Why not buy a beginner’s guitar set-up and learn to play a real guitar? I’m sorry, but these games are for losers. With the outlay and time spent on Guitar Hero, you could learn enough to propel yourself to a lifetime of enjoyment with a real axe.

After a bit more than an hour within the mall’s confines, we were ready to leave. Walking out to the parking lot, I couldn’t help but wonder if in ten years, all of this retail sprawl might be veritable ghost town, given our current economic straits, a downturn among people like us in any unwarranted spending approaching previous heights, and the continued chain reaction tied to the credit markets.

With major retailers like Circuit City, Linens and Things, Tweeter, and Steve & Barry’s already filing for bankruptcy pre-holidays, it will be interesting to see who follows suit in early 2009.

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