Chain Gang

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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