Conspicuous Consumption: An American Way of Life

So much of the American lifestyle revolves around consumption. Shopping in America is a form of entertainment, and sometimes an endurance sport. American homes are large, very large by most European standards, and crammed to the rafters with€¦ stuff. We have a lot of stuff in our home in Italy, and I’ve seen plenty of other Italian homes crammed with paintings, knick-knacks, silver geegaws, etc. But Italian stuff tends to be inherited over generations, acquiring along the way some sentimental, if not monetary, value. In America, stuff tends to be more recently bought, sometimes, it seems, just to fill all that space.

During our recent US visit, friends took us to Costco. For the uninitiated, this is a chain of stores to which you pay an annual membership for the privilege of shopping there. Costco sells things in bulk (double-sized boxes of cereal, whole flats of fruit, mascara in packages of four), very cheaply. The chain’s enormous purchasing power enables them to strong-arm suppliers into giving them lower prices than anyone else, prices which they pass on to customers at a fixed markup (17%, if I remember correctly). The stores look like warehouses, with boxes piled on shelves all the way to the 50-foot ceilings. One refrigerator section is an entire room that you walk into! The quality –even for fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat – is as good as or better than you’d get in standard grocery stores.

The advantages to the consumer are huge, and it’s great fun shopping there –everything is so amazingly cheap! Two pairs of flannel pajama bottoms for $14.99. A pack of 65 gel pens for $18. And that was only looking at the small, transportable stuff that I’d be likely to bring back to Italy. You can also buy sofas, computers, and huge plasma TVs.

Relative to Europe, and especially with the euro strong against the dollar, everything in America (not just Costco) seems cheap. I rarely shop for clothing in Italy, in part because it’s hard for me to find anything that fits properly –my body type is different from the standard Italian shape. But we shopped all over the US, and shopped, and shopped. I don’t understand how so many Americans can do so much shopping physically, let alone financially. Well, yes, I do understand: catalogs/Internet make it possible to shop from the comfort of your own home –no need to wear yourself out walking around malls.

But we did it the hard way. Our first expedition was to an outlet mall –a square mile of shops selling stuff no longer wanted in the main stores, at amazing prices. Ross was able to satisfy most of her wardrobe desires, for far less of a dent in my budget than I’d feared –about a quarter of what we would have spent in Italy for the same number of items. I even bought myself three pairs of trousers and a skirt for work. We shopped almost everywhere else we went, and hardly did anything that could be considered tourism. I comfort myself that shopping is the REAL American experience, far more than going to museums or monuments.

With conspicuous consumption, unfortunately, comes conspicuous waste. In Italy I’ve gotten used to recycling almost everything (carefully separated), saving plastic bags for re-use (when I get them at all –I usually take my own cloth bags to the grocery store), and finding creative ways to use up any leftover food.

Recycling seems less advanced in the US, probably for economic reasons – the US has so much land that it’s cheaper to dump trash somewhere then recycle and incinerate.

Food is also cheaper in the US, and therefore more likely to be wasted. One day we went out for lunch to a soup and sandwich place. Ross ordered onion soup in a bread bowl, but it arrived in a ceramic bowl. She took it back to the counter and asked for a bread bowl, expecting that this same soup would be poured into the bread bowl. Nope. The lady dumped the original soup into the trash, and then poured fresh soup into a bread bowl and gave it to Ross. I suppose there’s some restaurant hygiene rule about this, but Ross was deeply shocked.

And don’t even get me started on the cars. Enormous SUVs everywhere, driven by people who will never actually drive off-road or in snow or deep mud. Huge double-cab pickup trucks with extra wide beds, so clean and shiny as to make me suspect that they have NEVER been used to actually carry a load. And then there’s the Hummer: the fashion statement for the guy whose wallet is the biggest thing in his pants* (who then has the nerve to complain because gas costs $3 per gallon!).

* No, this line didn’t originate with me.

what real American shoppers say about Costco

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