Meet the New Consumer: The Simplifier

Last Updated Oct 22, 2008 11:46 AM EDT

We are about to witness a fundamental change in consumerism, at least as we have known it the last 20 years.

In the 1990s and 2000s we stocked up on wide-screen TVs, SUVs, and 12-room homes for our three-member families. But not today. Not tomorrow.

The American consumptionist is dialing back, selling off, and figuring out what is really important in his life. In this trend Harvard Business School marketing professor John Quelch sees the emergence of a new consumer class. Say hello to the "simplifier."

And good luck selling them stuff.

Writing on his Harvard Business Publishing blog How Recession Will Accelerate Consumer Downsizing, Quelch identifies a monumental shift in attitude:

"She finds herself surrounded by too much stuff acquired. She is increasingly skeptical in the face of a financial meltdown that it was all worth the effort. Out will go luxury purchases, conspicuous consumption, and a trophy culture. Tomorrow's consumer will buy more ephemeral, less cluttering stuff: fleeting, but expensive, experiences, not heavy goods for the home."
If you peddle luxury stoves or lobster pots, this not a good thing. But if you sell experiences, memories, such as foreign vacations, exquisite dining experiences, sports lessons--you might be in line to pick up more business from Simplifiers, Quelch suggests.

How can you spot Simplifiers? First, they have money--they just don't want to show it off. They are selling their excess purchases on eBay, and moving to smaller homes. "They reject the marketer's continual pressure to spend more money on possessions rather than on education, health care, and other social goods," Quelch says.

Read his post for more ideas on how this emerging consumer class changes the business landscape.

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.