Personal Consumption Essay

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I. Introduction

The below paper is designed to review the identity changes of consumers in the 21st Century. Focusing on the wedding industry’s consumption, marketing and consumer trends, the study would like to find the most significant shifts in customer behavior, confirming the statement of Kellner (1992: 141) that fixed identities are no longer present in the society: they are replaced by self-reflexive and changeable identities, formed by the exchange of views, innovation and interaction. Further, the research question addressed by Kellner (1992: 142) will be examined in the context of the wedding industry: “why do people consume as they do and what are the environmental consequences of escalating demand?’

II. The Emergence of Lifestyle Economy

Lifestyle economy is a fairly new expression to emphasize the connection between consumer lifestyles and purchasing decisions. Paterson (2005: 39) reviews theories related to the connection between consumption and identity. According to the author, “social groups maintain their identities by a process distinguishing themselves from others, this process of distinction being performed through acts of consumption”.

One of the theories Paterson (2005: 43) quotes in relation with lifestyle consumption and socialization is the statements within Bordieu’s Distinction. (1986). While Marx and Veblen based their theories on the distinction of social classes, Bordieu differentiates between two types of classes: based on economic capital and cultural capital. According to Bordieu, there is a connection between lifestyle, taste and choices, leading to distinctive patterns of consumption.

Paterson (2005: 39) also talks about positional consumption, which is extremely relevant to the current study. Wedding industry is influenced by situations of the consumer, their socialization and their position. Quoting Lury, (1996: 46), he states that social positions of consumers are influencing purchasing decisions. According to Paterson (2005: 41), “lifestyle is a set of positional markers, used to differentiate between groups.

Another approach to studying consumerism is looking at it from the material culture perspective. Material culture is an object for social change. Further, postmodern theorists state that postmodern got aestheticised, in the second part of the 20th Century. This indicates that pleasure gained of purchases and positive experience does influence consumer choices more than ever before. Consumption became more “characteristically constructive” (Woodward 2005: 25)

Postmodern philosophies, developed by Barthes, Derrida and Lyotard focus on postmodern society’s changes and its connection with consumption. Derrida concludes that a society is a live entity. Lyotard, however, states that oppression within the society and increased consumption is a sign of power and identity formation.

Lifestyle economies have changed significantly in the end of the 20th Century. The culture, lifestyle and consumption of people has significantly changed. Young people are more influenced by media than ever before. They are less connected to local cultures, traditions than people who grow up before the emergence of mass media.

Returning to Paterson’s ideas about the emergence of lifestyle economies, it is important to note that – according to the author – (Paterson 2005: 49) lifestyle is not based on class structures in the postmodern world. This statement goes against Marx’s view on society and classes and indicates that identity shifts, transformations influence consumption on a great scale. Indeed, he states that there is a “nexus between lifestyle, choice and identity as per-formed through the consumption and display of particular purchasable goods”. (Paterson 2005: 49) This statement can be related to the wedding industry: the choice of identity does reflect consumers’ choices on venues, decoration, level of formality and even menu. Unlike a motionless product, wedding services are customizable, personalizable in the postmodern, technology-enabled world. The collaboration between service providers and consumers results in identity formation and the materialization of consumer visions.

Longhurst et al. (2008: 181) notes that some authors conclude that we have now “moved beyond the industrial society”, and in the postmodern era it is essential to consider the influence of information technologies, media and the contemporary characteristics of the society that influence consumer decisions. The case study will apply the above described multi-disciplinary approach during creating a case study based on the wedding industry’s main consumer decision drivers.

III. Wedding Industry Case Study Design and Outline

The case study will review the sociology of consumption within the wedding industry. Further, it will look at the “consumption visions” determined by Phillips et al. (1995: 282) According to the authors, today’s consumer makes purchasing decisions based on visions. Phillips et al. (1995: 282) describe different examples of consumption, using an example of a 29-year old bride planning her wedding. The author examines the lifestyle and consumer decisions based on consumption visions. In the case of wedding planning, it is also important to consider the consumption situation, as well as the vision.

It is also crucial to look at lifestyle choices when examining consumer decisions within the wedding industry. Lifestyle choices (Miles 2000 and Andrews&Leopold, 2013) are determined by media, the context of the society and the changing youth identities of today’s world. The different influences of purchasing decisions, the role of media, communication technologies in socialization, consumerism and active participation in creating experiences will be analyzed by the case study.

The interaction between experience economy companies and consumers will also be analyzed on an emotional, social and motivational level. The impact of emotional connection is non-negotiable in the wedding industry, while the process of consumer vision formation through different media and communication channels, interactive methods will also need to be researched within the case study design, with particular focus on the recent development of media and information technology development, market research opportunities and consumer behavior research. While personalized solutions are becoming more common and decisions based on individual preferences are becoming more relevant to the industry day by day, there are still purchasing decision patterns to be identified, even though there are no two weddings that are the same.

IV. Case Study as a Form of Experience Economy

The above overview of the emergence of a consumer society has provided a basis for creating a case study. Theories have been reviewed and the main approach has been determined: looking at consumer decisions in the wedding industry from a multi-disciplinary perspective, considering the factors that influence choices, namely: socialization, consumption visions, identity formation, aesthetic motivations, media influence and information technologies. Taking into consideration the statement that there are different influences that create and form consumer vision is also necessary. (Phillips et al. 1995) According to the author, the main factors are: personal relevance and involvement, individual differences and situational factors.

Moav and Neeman (2008: 1) note that conspicuous consumption driven by class pressure and the motivation of impressing others is more prevalent among poor families than those who have a stable financial background. The change of consumption patterns based on social pressure puts a stress on the budget of families, resulting in severe debt problems. In the wedding industry, as well, spending over one’s budget, taking on long term high interest loans is becoming a common practice. The authors (Moav and Neeman, 2008: 2.) state that festivals, celebrations are used as a signal of wealth reduce the family’s ability to invest into education, health care and home improvements. Bringing up an example of the country of India, where wedding traditions are very strong, the authors state that the main aim of the wedding is to create a spectacle, based on the fact that it is the biggest event of the young woman’s life, never to be repeated. The authors also state that the concern for status is influenced by both the media and traditions, and leads to a poverty trap. (Moav and Neeman, 2008: 4.) Bourdieu (1987) also states that striving to belong to a higher class through a luxury wedding is a method of distinguishing one’s self from a lower group.

Feminist critics also noted the symbolic violence themes present in popular culture make their marks on weddings in traditional settings influencing consumer decisions. Women need to act submissively, be led by their father to the altar and some authors state that a marriage oppresses women. (Kingston: 158). The roles of males and females are determined by the ceremony, the discussion, the speeches and the advice given to couples.

The relationship between experience marketing and consumption has been studied by Schmitt (2011) in detail. Consumption experience, according to the author (Schmitt, 2011, p. 63) is able to create a link between customers and the product/service. Schmitt (2011, p. 63) also agrees with the definition created by Gentile et al. (2007, p. 397), who state that
“The Customer Experience originates from a set of interactions between a customer and a product, a company, or part of its organization, which provoke a reaction. This experience is strictly personal and implies the customer’s involvement at different levels (rational, emotional, sensorial, physical and spiritual.”

The above definition is clearly related to the experience economy of the wedding industry: the experience created is a result of a constant and active interaction between customers and the company, while the preferences of the couple greatly depend on their socialization pattern, their previous experiences and lifestyle choices. Due to the developments in communication technology, the interaction is supported by online marketing, applications, review sites’ use, virtual tours, mobile computing and instant feedback opportunities.

Further, it is also important to note that – according to Schmitt (2011, p. 64), experience consumption is greatly different from other types of consumerism, because it involves a large amount of sensations, feelings, emotions and attitudes. This statement is particularly true for wedding industry, as the event is emotionally important for couples. The level of involvement in creating the event depends on interests, attachment towards the brand, as well as consumer motivation, according to Schmitt (2011, p. 64), however, lifestyle should also be added to the above list.

Probing the theories of mass society and the statement of Miles (2001) that post-modern approaches create a more flexible, changeable and less homogenous consumer identity is also necessary, in order to understand that the wedding market is not a homogenous one in the 21st Century. Indeed, there is a higher level of interaction between the bride (or couple) ordering the service and the provider. Experiences are more customizable, flexible and have an identity formation function.

The examination of youth identities is important to review the driving forces of consumer lifestyles in the wedding industry. Identities are forms of self-expression: not only what young people “have”, but also what they “do”. (Miles 2000:156). This means that this self-expression is influenced by the socialization of the person: in the case of the wedding industry, the joint and added socialization pattern of the couple.

When making a decision about venue, menu, decoration, consumers form visions by “projecting the possible self”. (Phillips et al. 1995:282) These visions are influenced by narrative forms, imagination, affective reactions and goal representation.

In the study created by Ernst and Young (2008), the question of new and emerging consumer behaviors is being analyzed. The statement that self-selection and collaboration with the event organizer is becoming extremely popular is increasingly valid for the wedding industry. Researching another industry: insurance services, the case study has found that a new type of consumer is emerging in the Western civilization: the “know-it-all, have-it-all” consumer. (Ernst and Young 2008:14) The study also reveals that consumers are looking for a collaboration on a cross-channel when it comes to leisure and services. Online shopping should not be neglected when reviewing the consumer behavior of wedding industry consumers, especially that internet based searches and comparison sites allow customers to become less impulsive and consider their options before making a final decision.

Rojek (2013: 122) talks about single-issue events. He also mentions that events do have a strong emotional factor. He states (Rojek 2013: 139) that “modern men and women are attracted to express emotions strongly through event consciousness”. This has an important implication on the current study of the wedding industry. So far, none of the other theorists covered the emotional aspect of consumer choices, hence it is extremely relevant in the wedding industry, built around love and commitment. Therefore, the expression of emotions through consumption and consumer choices will also be added to the above list of factors influencing postmodern consumerism.

Andrews and Leopold (2013: 2) describes the case study of events as a process that examines a mix of elements. He concludes that the three main areas of case study research are practice, socio-cultural background and place elements. Further, the author notes that the situation, social context and interaction also needs to be taken into account when completing a case study in the event services management field.

A recent study created by the Wedding Industry Statistics Institute (2012) indicates that the impacts of modern and postmodern consumerism are clearly visible in the wedding industry market. The survey included 18.000 couples who got married between the 1st of January and the 31st of December in 2011. There are some significant changes from previous years, included in the survey:

  • Budgets of weddings are increasing, as well as the standards of reception and venue.
  • The planning of weddings did start earlier in 2011 than any other year, and this is an indication that the technology-enabled society is moving towards finding out information online and collecting data to compare before making a final decision.
  • The luxury wedding segment of the industry has grown, including the 3-day reception in a hotel, formal, elegant setting and full service. This also indicates that in the 21st Century, some people might choose a remote location to create an event: a world within a world, according to post-modern approaches.
  • The weddings have lost from their previous formality. This is a result of the personalization of consumer choices, as well as the consumer vision previously discussed, described by Phillips et al. (1995). This is also a sign of weakening local traditions.
  • The increased popularity of fall weddings also indicates that people make their decisions based on their lifestyles instead of traditions.
  • Interactivity of weddings. The personalization of the event, as well as the self-expression of the couple appears in the form of unique entertainment, food stations and comedians. Further, mobile technology was used to share photos, organize events, contact with vendors, etc.
  • Weddings go viral and on-line. Almost all weddings were documented on the internet, therefore, the statement that the consumer is a co-creator in the postmodern consumerism is confirmed.

Longhurst et al. (2008) confirms that the modern culture and everyday life has been “postmodernized”. This also relates to consumption which is a part of the material culture and has many aspects, described by Lury (1996:1). Consumption, according to Lury (1996:3) is “the manner in which people convert things to ends of their own”. This definition will be used in the current study to evaluate wedding industry consumptions and consumer lifestyles, choices, preferences.

Best (2010: 260) describes the consumer society as one influenced by mass media. This indicates that Western society is moving towards norms of the West, evidently destroying local traditions in the leisure and wedding industry. The information society and the technological advancements of the past decades also make it easier for couples to compare venues, services and themes when planning a wedding. Best (2010) describes a movement in the leisure industry that creates increased awareness of information and value, while the Disney Experience influences the wedding industry. Show business, spectacular scenery are becoming more popular, while the personal connection modifies consumer behavior.

VI. Findings and Theories Review

The completed case study has resulted in several findings that need to be summarized in the next chapter. These are based on theories, their application and the assumptions that in the postmodern society, the approach to social sciences should be multi-disciplinary, taking into consideration what influences people to consume more, select the products or services they do, returning to the main question of the study.

Miles’ Social theory needs to be revisited, especially the question he asks in Chapter 9: (Miles 2001: 164) “Is the current society showing a sign of continuity or change?” Patterns of change examined by social theorists are visible in the wedding industry. The influences of interaction between the culture of identities impact consumer decisions in the event planning service. Moreover, the latest developments of social media, communication and computing technologies make it simpler to find, compare, evaluate and select providers. The “cleverness” of search engines, for example allows couples to search for wedding services in a specific area, firms that offer live music and so on. This also brings us to the conclusion that there are no “classes” and fixed consumer market segments, as due to the interactive nature of today’s world, the influences of media, communication, peers and social interaction constantly change consumer preferences and impact purchasing decisions. This said, it is evident that Miles’ (2001) original statement that consumer identities are changing and not fixed in the postmodern world is confirmed.

Youth media and modern consumerism are closely related, according to Miles (2000: 147). Youth identities are formed and transformed by media. Still, young people “are in the position to frame their own reality”. Young people getting married can create the reality of the dream wedding that is more influenced by their personal preferences, identities and values than tradition and customs. Still, lifestyles are constructed within social classes. Therefore, nationality, religion, education, peer culture and other fundamental factors influence lifestyles and as a result, wedding service consumer decisions as well.

Social Stratification, according to Lawson and Todd (2002: 296) is still significant when looking at the socialization-based influences of consumer choices. The structural inequalities are till present in the society, however, the movement between two classes is easier and happens more often. Today, a couple can decide to book a luxury wedding using their credit card to commemorate their event. This decision will be mainly based on emotional influences, the identity creation process, instead of their financial situation. Consumerism’s main driving force is the desire of people to become the person they always wanted to be.

Further, it is important to review the theory of positional consumption again, when analyzing the trends within the wedding industry. Andrews and Leopold (2013: 4) states that “an event is any act in the conduct of life”. This signifies the importance of looking at events, weddings, parties and other leisure services as not a standalone consumption, more like a part of a consumer vision, identity formation and lifestyle. This statement, combined with the idea of decision making based on consumption visions (Phillips et al. 1995: 282) provide consumer researchers and case study creators with an insight of where to look for connections when analyzing structures, consumer behavior and influences.

The main trends determined by the case study, concluding the findings of industry specific variable analysis and the theories are summarized below.

Postmodern consumers are influenced by their class, socialization patterns, identity and visions. The influence of identity creation, vision and emotions is increased by the higher interactivity of the society: instant communication, world wide web, social networking and online research. Brides do not only search for specific services when planning their wedding, but they start the research earlier online. They are able to interact with providers, request an online tour, ask peers on social media sites about a venue and share the event through a website they create on the Internet that is all about their wedding day. As confirmed earlier, the selection of the service is no longer a one-way communication, but a collaborative interaction between the service provider and the couple: they are co-creators instead of simply consumers: taking an active part in planning and scheduling. The influence of lifestyles is also confirmed by the fact that fall weddings are more popular: brides know that most of their guests would have a summer holiday booked, while some of them would spend some time with their distant relatives around Easter.

VII. Conclusion and Implications in Practice

The above case study has proved several statements of social theorists analyzed above. The main conclusion of the paper should be that “the consumer of the postmodern society is, therefore, influenced by their lifestyles, their socialization, consumer visions and the media.”. This can be used as an answer to the initial question: “why do people consume as they do and what are the environmental consequences of escalating demand?’ People consume the way they do because they are – in the postmodern world” actively creating their flexible and easy to influence identities. Their consumer identities determine their main buying decisions, however, these decisions are influenced by media, the internet communication, information services and consumer visions. The case study has revealed that indeed the changes in society, socialization, consumerism, various influences and interactive methods of communication make the wedding industry a complex system within the experience economy. Kellner’s (1992: 141) original statement, therefore, has been confirmed by the case study.

Miles (2000) states that the identity formation of today’s young people is different from those who grew up before the development of the information technology. Digital and traditional media both influence consumer decisions, hence the popularity of weddings abroad. Cyprus weddings become more popular, according to the Wedding Industry Statistics Institute (2012). The fact that people get married later in life is a lifestyle influence to their consumer choices. As they are more “decided” and “socialized”, the level of influence that impacted their lifestyles, preferences and consumer visions is greater.

The main implication of the above findings for the practice of case studies and socialization research is that looking at a single factor that influences consumer decisions is not enough. There is a need for a multi-disciplinary approach and analyzing statistical data from either only lifestyle or class perspective is not suitable for research any more.

The impact of information technologies on everyday life is called postmodernization by Longhurst et al. (2008: 178). In order to understand the motivations behind consumer decisions, it is important to look at the consumer society as one that constantly changes through the influences of information technology, the mass media, and is formed by not one single norm, but sub-cultures and mixtures of different cultures. One of the examples of the mixture of cultural influences, quoted by the authors is Bollywood. Through this example, it is easier to see that people and classes, as well as individuals consume culture while re-creating it. The western elements of the Indian movies and the traditional dresses make Bollywood movies unique and postmodern. The same movement, translated to the language of a wedding industry’s specifics would be a wedding that is building upon Indian traditions, features Indian food, however, the setting is a New Orleans luxury hotel, where guests are listening to the latest music, watch performances born in the Western civilization. Categories do not exist any more in postmodern consumerism: we cannot say that this is a “traditional wedding” or that is a “luxury wedding”. The ability to personalize the experience and express ourselves through consumption is the aspect of postmodern consumerism that needs to be studied in the 21st Century. Without a complex approach to consumer case studies, researchers will only scratch the surface and reveal half of the factors that influence purchasing decisions, which, according to Kellner (1992: 141) are changeable and mobile.

Reference List

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