Armchair Predictions About Consumer Trends

By P.J. O'Rourke

You get a lot of valuable research in the Stansberry Digest.

Wading through all that expert advice, trying to figure out which you want to use, can put pressure on a guy... I try to relieve the pressure the expert advice puts on you by providing inexpert advice.

I am strictly an armchair observer of the financial scene. My predictions don't come from deep knowledge or brilliant analysis, they come from the seat of my pants. Literally.

Let me explain.

I make my predictions from what I see and hear sitting in a chair in my living room. My family happens to contain an ideal consumer focus group – two young millennial daughters.

This demographic is responsible for a large portion of America's consumer spending. From what I can tell by my credit card bills, my daughters do about 120% of that spending.

It's important to know what my focus group is (and isn't) buying.

That's where my armchair comes in. I like to sit there in the evening reading the newspaper and having a drink. Or, given what news has been like lately, a couple of drinks.

However, I live in a house with a stupid floor plan. At one end is a large family room, where my daughters do their homework, fiddle with their electronic devices, and watch TV. At the other end is the kitchen where my daughters make snacks and a mess. And the only way to get from the family room to the kitchen and back is by way of the living room, through which they constantly traipse.

I don't get much peace and quiet, but I do get to see both daughters frequently. And I get to overhear things about what they want and don't want, like and don't like, and are or aren't planning to do.

Lately, I've been paying attention to this information as it applies to consumer spending.

My 19-year-old daughter is a living issue of Vogue magazine, except more interested in clothes. If you're wondering where all the weird getups from New York Fashion Week go after the runway shows, they're in her room. How she gets dressed in there I don't know. The room is so full of clothing that there's no space for the girl who wears it.

And yet (all kidding about my credit-card bills aside), my daughter is remarkably frugal. She pays for most of her clothes herself with wages from a none-too-lucrative after-school job.

I could not figure out where the clothes were coming from. I was beginning to worry. So as she passed from kitchen to family room wearing something that Lady Gaga had rejected as too "out there," I asked. And my daughter set me straight about her generation's shopping habits.

She and her friends – and from what I can tell, millions of other girls their age – are on the Internet constantly buying and selling and trading their clothes to each other. My daughter's room isn't just filled with clothes. It's also filled with UPS boxes, some being opened, some being packed.

They look at fashion magazines, blogs, and YouTube videos to get high-style ideas, then network with fellow young "fashionistas" to find low-price knockoffs. Or they alter existing garments to get what's chic. Some make clothes themselves. Others paw through the racks at Goodwill stores for vintage finds. They wear their outfits a few times, then pass them along at bargain rates.

My daughter visits department stores, boutiques, and malls, but mostly to check fabrics, quality, and sizes. My daughter goes to Bloomingdale's the way I go to a Ferrari dealership. Which Ferrari would be just right for me? In my dreams!

My prediction is that the retail clothing business aimed at young women (a big part of the retail clothing business) had better wake up and smell the packing tape on the UPS boxes.

For decades, this retailing – both in-store and more recently, online – has been based on the idea that girls are voracious and vacuous shoppers, who regard clothing as essentially disposable and compulsively buy new things. The girls have found a way to fight back.

My 16-year-old younger daughter is less interested in clothes, possibly because she goes to a school with a boring dress code. But she is an avid consumer of personal electronic communication in its every form.

I'd often see her, as she walked by my armchair with an armload of devices, texting, e-mailing, tweeting, Snapchatting, Skyping, checking Facebook, and talking on the phone at the same time.

Then, one evening she came in, sat down on my footstool, and poured her heart out. With big, sad eyes, she told me it was over, done, they were breaking up – she and personal electronic communication.

She said, "I just can't stand it anymore! It's like having everybody you've ever met on permanent sleepover at your house forever. All the whispering, giggling, gossiping, and pillow fights... I mean virtual pillow fights... have just got to STOP!"

I questioned her gently, expecting to hear mean girl stories or reports of unwelcome Instagram photos of boys in their underpants.

But her concerns had a greater maturity than that. "Dad," she said, "what I really can't stand is all the political stuff everybody is sending all the time. It's so angry. It's so, like, loud."

Here is a girl who goes to a liberal private school, but who grew up in conservative rural New Hampshire and was raised by parents with firm libertarian principles. She has friends and family with political views of every conceivable stripe. Until now, this had never bothered her. She just thought she lived in a diverse world where reasonable people had reasonable disagreements... Until she encountered "Communication Overload."

She said, "Dad, it's worse than a permanent sleepover. I mean there's lots of that, too, and it drives me nuts. But now it's like the school debate team. Except everybody from everywhere is on the debate team. And everybody's making their debate argument all at once at the top of their lungs and nobody's in the audience, there is no audience, nobody's listening!"

I didn't know what to say. Finally, I told her, "Well, I suggest you stop listening, too."

"I'm going to," she said. "I'm turning everything off."

Which, of course she didn't do. She still chats on her iPhone and sends texts to her friends with a blur of young thumbs. But I notice she is, indeed, spending less time with her devices.

My guess is that her Communication Overload would have come anyway, even without the current political fracas.

Constant communication deprives us of an important part of communication – the part where we pause between communications and have time to accumulate experiences, knowledge, and thoughts that are worth communicating.

My prediction is that someday we will look back on the personal electronic communication fad with as much bafflement as we look back on the hula hoop. We'll consider being in constant communication with each other to be as silly and (unless you permanently injured your spine during the hula hoop craze) more dangerous.

My inexpert advice is that, next time you hear about an initial public offering for an app that will make it easier for the whole world to get in touch with my younger daughter, keep your investment money in the pocket of the good-as-new, perfectly tailored cashmere cardigan sweater that my older daughter can get you for $15.


P.J. O'Rourke