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What should I buy?

By Marshall IngwersonStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 29, 1982

What do I want? What do I want? It is a question that permeates American life.

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It follows us down the well-stocked aisles of the local supermarket. What do we want? Like a good book, it noodles with our deepest yearnings for purpose. What do we value most? And what is it worth to us?

The marketing man needs to know. His search for what we want has taken him well into territory once left to poets and anthropologists - the hearts and minds of Americans.

Everyone wants something different, but there have always been patterns. On one level, housewives supposedly want whiter whites. On another, parents have generally been willing to sacrifice so that their children can have more than they had.

In the past decade, the patterns have been disrupted. Americans are wanting different things, different from before, different from one another.

Market researchers, in a field they call psychographics, are busy charting this terrain - plotting the attitudes, interests, and life styles of various segments of the buying public - to draw up good, usable maps.

If there are common landmarks used by these explorers of consumer attitudes, they are those mapped by the VALS program at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif. VALS stands for Values and Life Styles, and it divides American consumers into nine basic ''VAL types'' (see box).

To be useful to marketers, the maps must help explain changes of heart like this:

A corporate pin-striper - an overachiever - commutes an hour and a half each way to a demanding, high-paying job in a big city. Howard Leonard, research director at Young & Rubicam, a national advertising firm, sets up an interview with him weeks in advance as part of an in-depth probe of consumer values.

By the time Mr. Leonard pays his visit, the man has stood his life style on its head. He has decided he wants more time with his wife and young son, trading his career for a much lower-paying, part-time job nearer home. Now he is considering work in a small local store, just for a fresh experience.

This is an unusual fellow, but he illustrates some notable trends tracked by marketing people around the country:

* Renewed interest in the home and in personal relationships.

* The steadily increasing value placed on simplicity and balance in daily life, with less waste or excess.

* A growing sense of the preciousness of time, that time is worth more than money.

* A new desire for full, rich experiences for their own sake, rather than as a means to an end.

These things translate into buying habits, the theory goes.

But the most pervasive yearning of all seems to be for quality. From quality of life to quality of cars and cameras, Americans want it in any number of ways for any number of reasons. On the one hand it can mean a new respect for excellence, on the other a new elitism.

People are buying less because of a less-abundant economy, marketing analysts say, but what they buy today will tend to be better-made, better-looking, and more enduring.

The 1960s came and went with much social tumult, but they left the great bulk of American values virtually unchanged, says Daniel Yankelovich in his 1981 book , ''New Rules: Searching for Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down.'' But the past decade has seen these values quietly revolutionized.

Mr. Yankelovich is the dean of market researchers, and for 12 years his Yankelovich Monitor has tracked shifts in the social climate for subscribing corporations and agencies, looking at some 40 social trends.

The results are closely guarded, since the subscribers pay handsomely for them. But a central thesis in Yankelovich's book is the decline of the ethic of self-denial - the credo that long ruled family life in this country - in favor of the quest for self-fulfillment.

That quest has come with easy affluence and the rapid changes in all aspects of social life, Yankelovich says. These changes have been so profound that people feel the old rules no longer apply.

The affluent American faces open-ended choices on all sides. And now the pinching economy demands a cutting back and taking stock: The kid in the world's largest candy store just found he has but 30 cents in his pocket.