Chain Gang

Buying community at the hip neighborhood nearest you

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Anyone who has wandered into either Barnes & Noble or Borders in the last few years has noticed that the yoking of coffee, books, and overstuffed chairs has made for some very busy cash registers. Building on the suburban mall's success as the new town square, many businesses have successfully marketed community to customers eager to have a safe and clean place to kick back and watch the world go by. Now that formula is being tweaked to suit the needs of customers who pride themselves on their ability to sniff out a marketing ploy as fast as you can say OK Soda: twentysomethings.

Selling everything from made-to-look-old work boots to Etch-a-sketches to beeswax candles and hippie tablecloths, the master of the slacker sell-job is Urban Outfitters -- a national chain that now has twenty stores in trendy urban neighborhoods and college towns across the country. According to an article in Forbes (May 22, 1995) this eclectic melding of irony and fashion makes for great business: At $550 a square foot, Urban Outfitters' sales are about double those of department stores, and about one-quarter better than The Gap's. But while it might seem like this garage aesthetic is peddling an alternative to the likes of Banana Republic and Pottery Barn, what makes Urban Outfitters so successful is that it creates an atmosphere that is conducive to hanging out. According to the Chicago-based culture and politics zine Lumpen (Vol.4, No. 2) the chain's founder has frequently described the Urban Outfitter customers as 'upscale homeless people' who are at 'a period in their lives when they've left their parent's house and before they've found a real home.'

Of course a real homeless person isn't going to be too interested in a $75 sweatshirt, but as LUMPEN points out, whether or not Urban Outfitters' customers would find the real-life counterparts to the working class chic they're sporting as interesting as the emotional tourism embodied in the store's design isn't really the point: The stores' 'marketing slight-of-hand, which masks their relationship to customers as one of friendship and service rather than one of manipulation, is aided by their customers' unwillingness to recognize their own class privilege as it is by stylistic allusions.'

Original to Utne Reader Online

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