Monday, July 04, 2011

Sirens of the Zeitgeist

From Part 1.

Macerated Strawberries, blueberries, Yogi Cereal, Boysenberry Yoghurt
Bryant Simon's thesis is that the developed world is more susceptible to the seduction of buying because the pullback of community, the state, and other binding agents allowed brands like Starbucks to sell more goods by claiming the vacuum left by the government. Certainly something we in Singapore may see more clearly in the years after the 2011 General Elections.

Like politicians and political parties, Starbucks and other corporates make huge promises about many things. Everything but the Coffee examines the courtship and what consumers are actually buying. Afterall, we fork over money because we value what we think we are getting in return. And the Strawberry Generation of Singapore is lapping it up in droves.

So what sort of idolatry does the Starbucks test show up? Simon says, in relation to American society:

Values with Status
The status symbols of the American post-post-hippies of the 1990s were a set of upscale values vaguely revolving around better lifestyle, personal control, better taste, authenticity. It was more about separating oneself from the Joneses than keeping up with them.

Howard Schultz portrayed Starbucks as the bastion of authenticity - highlighting the company's know-how and coffeeness with "baristas" who served the drinks and with Italian-sounding beverage names and sizes. At a time when the well-educated stopped trusting traditional advertising, Schultz often boasted to reporters that Starbucks didn't advertise - but of course it did, merely in softer ways through storefronts, visual brand language-speaking logo-ed cups and myth-making in interviews.

Experience architect Wright Massey used an appropriate colour palette, wood floors and earth-toned tiles, brown napkins and sugar, displays of raw green coffee beans, to create a natural, slightly Continental feel. But each store always incorporated something unique to the space to ensure that the similarities between stores did not alarm consumers.

Predictable Individuality
Post-McDonalisation of society, people had come to prefer to know what to expect in most settings and at most times; they neither desired nor expected surprises. Starbucks then offered that feeling of reassurance when its products were the same everywhere, especially when consumers were travelling in a foreign country and were already alienated by the language barrier. Any tyranny of choice would have added to their feelings of dislocation.

This safe predictability had to be carefully staged - Starbucks did this by mechanising its production line so all drinks would always taste the same, by filling its stores with a certain sort of worker, by ensuring that each store had the same facilities (a clean toilet, Wifi etc).

However, so as to avoid being associated with McDonalds, it had to simultaneously mask its sameness behind images of choice and individuality. Yuppies and the creative class liked to think themselves as unique and would reject anything in their buying that might mark them out as run-of-the-mill; which is why when Dunkin' Donuts paid some Starbucks regulars to try its coffee for a week, even though most agreed that the coffee was better, they bristled at the bright orange colour scheme and lack of personal importance from being unable to make choices. Starbucks patrons sought out things that made them feel significant.

Starbucks did not just limit itself to the customisation of drinks to cater to the egoistically-needy, it also ensured the experience was personalised. The Starbucks manual insisted that workers know customer names, drinks and personal preferences. Workers needed to smile, laugh and ask customers their first names when they order - not just for drink pick-ups but also to help them know their regulars as quickly as possible so they could greet them when they next stepped in the door. The manual laid out a number of "legendary service scenarios" - handing over a drink and saying "Tall mocha, thank you" was basic; to upgrade the service was to say "Thanks, John, enjoy your mocha!", explaining that "The partner recognised the customer by name. There was a personal connection". They were to start customer conversations, compliment them on something and smile with their eyes. (Having been trained to expect this, it is no wonder that there are frequent complaints about "The Service" by young food bloggers.)

Simulacra of community, belonging
Schultz realised that consumers wanted something more than a nod of the head at the point of purchase. They wanted a throwback to the past when there was noise, the intimacy of laughter and conversation in coffee shops. He repeated third place community-building promises constantly by saying that Starbucks (unlike McDonald's and Burger King) created a third place, adding value to the community by becoming an instant gathering place that draws people together.

However, while Starbucks was certainly a second place (public study/work space, restroom), it wasn't any more than a failed imitation of a Cheers-type set-up. People hardly talked to strangers and the Starbucks workers worked random shifts and typically didn't stay long enough or work predictable hours to get to know regulars properly.

Starbucks tried to position itself as a penny university coffeehouse by pumping music that sounded sophisticated and urban, hanging Starbucks-made art on the walls, splashing about some lines of poetry or prose about coffee or community. But it was not a place for talk, debate, interaction or exchange of ideas. Workers behind the counters were not allowed to deviate from the script without checking with their superiors. Political and religious leaflets were not allowed on the "community board".

At the end of the day, it was the promise of a simulacra of belonging and the image of intellectual excitement of penny universities that attracted the new yuppies. Customers got the warm fuzzies watching other people relax in an illusion of community, without having to deal with the grittiness of real interaction.

Opportunities for affordable self-gifting
Schultz liked to describe his sugary treats as "affordable luxuries". Post-Oprah, the great enabler of "I'm worth it, I deserve respect/a treat/a break" latte buying, many people (especially women) have embraced a mindset of self-gifting - the idea of rewarding yourself or cheering yourself up with a purchase. Starbucks frequently used such language as well in promoting its icy cream-and-sugar laden drinks.

It is a strange form of idolatry to think that retail therapy - buying to rub out negative feelings, improve your mood, reward yourself, assert control over your life - should work.

Veneer of discovery
Another way Starbucks appealed to the post-conspicuous consumption class was to promise to take them on new and different journeys with their next purchase, which these consumers ("everyday explorers") could then use as a kind of currency to make distinctions between themselves and the hoi polloi. In their circles, one got esteem and admiration points for venturing into an exotic locale or discovering a very super authentic Eskimo joint tucked away in a suburb ("hidden find"!).

The Starbucks package tour consisted of single-origin beans and introducing new music and books to its customers, clothing itself in the aura of discovery and good feelings. Naturally, these were sanitised for the white middle-class. While the creative class talked alot about diversity, not many lived in integrated neighbourhoods nor were they interested in multiculturalism when it came to their food, drink, music or literature choices.

Badges of support for social justice, environmental protection, fair trade, world peace!
For the price of an overpriced drink, consumers could purchase the ability to sleep soundly, believing that through Starbucks, he was improving the lives of exploited farmers in underdeveloped countries (photos of cheerful farmers - check. authentically grainy corpumentary - check. even though the subjects never benefited from Starbucks), bringing water to remote villages, saving the planet (although the manufacture of Starbucks cups and their in-store water management wasted tons of resources every year), bringing fair trade to the world at large (a system that, despite its name, merely enforced the class divide), and global peace.

Nothing new in the branded world of private remedies where the purchase of a red shirt at GAP would ease the AIDS crisis in Africa.

Then what happened? The hypothesis is that Starbucks' star started its descent and lost its cultural cachet when it got too large to keep on its mask of authenticity.

Yet, the turning of the tide away from global corporates towards mom-and-pop authenticity may not be much of a change. Interesting to observe how, not unlike the Starbucks that is now so vilified, the self-proclaimed independents offer salvation, personal enrichment, community and better living through design-conscious consumption.

What tunes do the sirens of the zeitgeist sing? How are we being seduced?

To continue from the other day's walkabout, start from Orchard Cineleisure, a brilliant mall-below-cineplex cashcow for the Cathay group.

rockstar by Soon Lee
rockstar by Soon Lee's self-conscious description: "we are an independent retailer based in Singapore, best known for being the first and only female casual footwear store in Asia. Other than our shoes, we're also well-loved for our books, bags and apparels". Original shop in Haji Lane - if one spawns branches, does one lose one's indie-ness?

Bird & Co, Orchard Cineleisure
Birds & Co.
, the stationery arm of booksactually that we visited the other day is "a papeterie and brocante in the heart of town where you can find our very own handmade notebooks, stationery and lovely vintage trinkets". The vintage indie subculture that's very St. Lucy's School for Girls Raised By Wolves vs the Monocle indie subculture of Soon Lee.

*Scape
Next door is *Scape. Because the Strawberry Generation of Singapore is particularly whingey and slothful despite the badge of indie-ness, the Ministry of Community, Youth & Sports had to set up this space for them.

A Curious Teepee, *scape IMG_8333
Notable shops here are A Curious Teepee - by Tracy Phillips' Present Purpose, Takenouchi Webb and The Lo and Behold Group. "Led by the desire to instill a sense of adventure and imagination within the community and a deeper appreciation for design, A Curious Teepee was born. Combining a lifestyle store, café/ bar and enriching programming as one entity, all products and in-store ideas are carefully curated for amusement, interaction and expression",

IMG_8334
Flesh Imp - "shaping the urban subculture since 2000. Both drawing from and giving back to this movement, Flesh Imp has set trends and seamlessly bridged the worlds of music, design, positive vibes to deliver beautiful clothing",

IMG_8336
once upon a milkshake - "All over the world, storytellers and writers have articulated the words “once upon a time”, enticing listeners and readers of all ages through wonderful journeys and indescribable experiences. Correspondingly, we seek to achieve just that - to provide premium ice cream milkshakes and scoops that bring joy, fun and unutterable experiences that milkshake and ice cream devotees can take pleasure in. We strive to empower everyone to indulge and enjoy both our premium ice cream-blended milkshakes and ice cream at non-premium prices". Surely they had me at "empower".

The other neighbour of Cineleisure Orchard is Mandarin Gallery. Tai-tai shops are joined here by highend streetwear, Japanese design and expensive lo-fi-ness - evidence that a generous slice of the monied class now take up subscriptions from Wallpaper and Monocle rather than Tatler? Other than 7 for all mankind, atomi, ambush, there's also

Inhabit the other store, Mandarin Gallery
Inhabit curates unique "progressive" fashion pieces from around the world,

hansel, Mandarin Gallery
hansel, which started as a blogshop an online boutique (named after designer Jo Soh's jack russell that she rescued off the streets) selling womenswear that "blends a sense of quirky playfulness with understated minimalism [that] pulls together unexpected elements, creating highly-wearable pieces that suit spunky, confident women who can’t help standing out in a crowd. The label reflects her modern and unique take on retro-inspired styles, featuring her signature love for juxtaposing strong and subtle shades."

IMG_8339
woodwould, another branch "redefining stationery", "stocked with paper wonders and quirky finds from all over planet earth. a paper evangelist. a sanctuary for the obsessed".

Move further down Orchard Road to Ngee Ann City. The land on which *Scape, Orchard Cineleisure, Mandarin Hotel/Gallery and Ngee Ann City are cited used to be a Ngee Ann Kongsi burial ground. Wagging tongues say that Chinese tomb shape of Ngee Ann City was meant to appease spirits made homeless by the redevelopment.

Juchheim Baumkuchen, Ngee Ann City Juchheim Baumkuchen, Ngee Ann City
Buy some Juchheim baumkuchen (German confection x Japanese sensibility) for your mom then

IMG_8343
stop off for a cup of hot chocolate at Pang Kok Keong's Pique Nique. Legendary experience is "homemade" cloud-shaped marshmellow (though Nikole Herriott got there first). Save dessert stomach space for later.

The Med, Orchard Central
Take the MRT train from Orchard MRT to Somerset MRT and get thee to Basement 2 (The Med) of Orchard Central where some small-scale disneyfication of the Mediterranean is going on.

Wall Mural outside Medzs, Orchard Central The Pather, Orchard Central
Lamp, Medzs, Orchard Central IMG_0068
France, Medzs Butter Truffle Chicken, Medzs, Orchard Central
Steak, Medzs, Orchard Central Chacuterie, Medzs, Orchard Central
Turkish, Medzs, Orchard Central Turkish Delights, Medzs, Orchard Central
5% Bar, Medzs, Orchard Central King Goblin beer, Medzs, Orchard Central
Patiesserie, Medzs, Orchard Central Sugar Brioche, Medzs, Orchard Central
Cakes, Medzs, Orchard Central Muffins and Bread and Butter Pudding, Medzs, Orchard Central
Check out Medzs (yesyes), a Marché-like food court designed by DP Architects offering "authentic yet affordable Mediterranean food right in the heart of Singapore" - charcuterie (chorizo, serrano ham, jamon), butter truffle roast chicken, duck confit, lobster thermidor, shish kebabs, paella etc...and rosti(?!). 1 for 1 for lovely range of beers and also on wines and champagne. :-) Usually, you wouldn't draw attention to the details that create the atmosphere, but then Food Junction isn't quite Bread Talk/Food Republic.

Board SBS bus 7 or 175 to Lavender MRT Station. Walk to Penhas Road.

Citylights, Lavender
On the way, you will see another attempt at conservation - the incorporation of the frontage of a row of old townhouses into the Citylights condominium development at Jellicoe Road.

Antoinette, Penhas Road Antoinette, Penhas Road
Antoinette at Antoinette, Penhas Road Antoinette, Penhas Road
Antoinette, Strawberry Shortcake. Antoinette, Penhas Road Strawberry Shortcake, Religuese of Caramel and Fleur de Sel, Mont Blanc. Antoinette, Penhas Road
chocolates, Antoinette, Penhas Road Chocolicieux and Pudding Maple, Antoinette, Penhas Road
Marshmellow Bears, Antoinette, Penhas Road Saint Honore L'amour, Antoinette, Penhas Road
Religieuse of Caramel with Fleu de Sel Violette, Antoinette, Penhas Road
At 30 Penhas Road (chic points for popping up in an industrial area), enter Chef's Pang's Antoinette. French references = disneyfication or landscaping? Best candidates for tummy space are eponymous dessert (good with eponymous earl grey tea) and Religieuse of Caramel and Fleu de Sel. Withhold any curiosity you might have about the taste of violets because the raspberry marmalade in the Violette overwhelms everything except the hard cream.

Now return to Lavender MRT and board SBS Bus 12 to East Coast Road. To be continued...



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