In late winter, a new Salvation Army store opened with surprising fanfare in my mid-Michigan hometown. At the Grand Opening, bargain shoppers started lining up outside in 30 degree weather at 7 a.m. and patiently waited two hours for the manager to unlock the doors. When he did, it took 20 minutes for the crowd to file inside.
Throughout the day, shoppers again waited in lines to purchase the goods that filled their carts to overflowing. The lines wrapped around the perimeter of the store while hundreds of cars clogged the once deserted parking lot.
By closing time, the store that offers items with the average sale price of $2.09 had made $30,000. Twirling lights from a sky tracker sliced through the darkened skies, signaling to the world that a new business had successfully launched.
It's tempting to believe that shoppers who sifted through the carefully sorted clothing and household goods did so out of dire need. But I'm afraid my local Salvation Army's slammin' success is more indicative of the downward slide of the American shopper. Sometime in the past year, Macy's shoppers became J.C. Penney shoppers who became Wal-Mart shoppers who became Salvation Army shoppers.
We may be experiencing a paradigm shift, but the paradigm itself (shop till you drop) has remained the same. And so has our bottom line. We're still looking for a bargain. We're still seduced by the thrill of the hunt. And, even at the Salvation Army, we're still spending money as though it were our social responsibility to do so.
The rhetoric regarding the cause and effect of our economic downturn continues to swirl, but I don't believe it reflects the whole truth of our circumstances. The reality that we don't seem to want to face is that we have bought into the scarcity mentality that permeates the culture. Our closets, garages and cupboards overflow with possessions, but we act like our stuff evaporated with our 401Ks.
Certainly, there are legitimate needs. I live just outside of Flint where unemployment rate hovers above 14 percent due to the auto industry's failure. Economic tensions and uncertainties dominate every conversation and fill the very air we breathe.
Still, many people here have homes, cars, snowmobiles, cottages Up North and wardrobes that could easily clothe a small African village. America is still the richest country in the world, but our desire for more stuff remains unsatiated.
Marketers have apparently won the battle. We have come to believe we do not have enough. We look on our belongings with disdain rather than gratitude and have listened to the message that loudly insists, WE NEED MORE! And we're buying it. We may not be buying it at our preferred outlets, but that doesn't mean we're not hauling it home.