What Should I Buy? In Search of the American consumer: nine views

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The Values and Life Styles program, or VALS, was developed at SRI International in 1977 by Arnold Mitchell and his assistant, Marie Spengler, who is now director of the program. Mitchell had been putting out an annual report on ''Values and Consumption'' since 1960. This and a study they did of voluntary simplicity as a life style spurred the two researchers to sort the consumer values of American adults into nine categories.

Here's how they view US consumers:

''Survivors'' and ''sustainers'' are need-driven consumers whose chief concern is adequate food and shelter. Survivors are generally elderly, poor, and on their own. Sustainers are generally young and struggling, often with big families, often bitter. Together they make up about 11 percent of the adult population. They buy necessities as cheaply as they can and sometimes splurge for prestige goods.

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Two-thirds of the buying public fall into the ''outer-directed'' group, conforming their values to the dictates of society. ''Belongers'' alone make up about a third of the nation's consumers. These are traditional, conventional, nostalgic, sentimental, and reliable people who want to fit in and be respected in their community.

''Emulators'' are people in transition. Ambitious, competitive, status-conscious, and often suspicious, they are trying to make their break into the system.

''Achievers'' are successful. About a fifth of the buying public, they work hard and want the best, the good life. Competitive and self-confident, they have high salaries, live in the suburbs, and dominate the leadership of business, the professions, and government. Their values are generally materialistic, and they accept technological innovation eagerly.

The hardest groups to pin down for buying habits are the ''inner directed'' ones. They buy according to their own inner needs, rather than social norms. While these groups have slightly thinner ranks than the ''achiever'' group now, SRI expects the number of inner-directed people to grow to 28 percent of the adult public. Their key feature is self-expressive diversity.

The youngest group here is dubbed the ''I-am-me's.'' They are impulsive, experimental, dramatically self-expressive, and they revel in their individualism. The ''experientials'' seek inner growth through direct and stimulating experience. This is the hang glider market.

The ''societally conscious'' are the best-educated group of the nine and the most interested in broad social and cultural issues and are a key force for change. Generally, they are interested in simple life styles and hold liberal opinions. They are heavily represented in the younger ranks of management, and are growing faster than SRI expected. They grew from 9 to 11 percent of the adult population over the past year.

The ''integrateds'' have the best of both worlds. They are effective and successful like ''achievers,'' and they have the insight and perspective of the ''societally conscious.'' SRI pegs them at 2 percent of the buying public.

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