Cities consume us

Tuesday, 1 September 2009 - 8:27am IST | Place: Bangalore | Agency: DNA
Big cities become what they aspire to become with basic consumption morphing to higher-end consumption. Bigger cities revel in consumptiveness.

When is a city a city? When does a city grow up? What typifies a grown-up city? A happening city? When does a city really arrive? What is the defining point?

I keep searching for these answers. I hop a fair number of cities in my work life. I add on a few through personal vacations as well, rare as they are. If I have kept track right, I must have hopped at least 90 of them to date. Many of them time and again. Much to my chagrin.

If I am to find just one defining element as to what makes for a city, a big one staring back at all of us is the fact that cities are consumptive points. Consumptive points that revel in overt consumption. Branded consumption. Unnecessary consumption. Wasteful consumption even.

Big cities are defined by the amount they consume. The more they consume and the more they pay for consumption, the bigger they are. Premium cities are urban agglomerations that believe in paying bigger prices for everything. The big city is defined by the big price tag.

And consumption happens in many ways. The bus you travel in, the train you take to work, the petrol you fill in your tank, the road tax you pay, the toll you fork out while using an expressway and the price of tender coconut on Margosa Rd are all items of consumption. Consumption happens in a direct fashion when you buy something. It happens in an indirect fashion when you pay for something like property tax on the flat you just bought. Bigger cities believe in bigger ticket consumption price tags.

Add to this the dimension of consumptiveness. If consumption is eating what you need to eat, consumptiveness is eating what you really don’t need to eat. Eating to fill your stomach is basic consumption. Eating the same meal at a gourmet restaurant once in a while is higher-end consumption. Nibbling at Scandinavian caviar with a grimace on your face is consumptiveness. Ouch!

Big cities become what they aspire to become with basic consumption morphing to higher-end consumption. Bigger cities revel in consumptiveness. In my way of defining consumption, there are two types of consumption formats. The first is “needs and wants” consumption. The second is “desires and aspirations” consumption. Both exist in every category of everything that is bought and sold.

Take drink. Water is the “need and want” item in this category. One needs it. When one can’t get it free, one pays for it. When one seeks and wants purity, one pays for the bottled offering. Most bottled water brands cost most than a litre of milk even. But we pay.

If water is a “need and want” category item, in the very same category there are premium brands of water bottled in the Alps and the Andes and literally every mountain range you can think of. These are brands that cost the earth. One forks out money to buy into their allure. This is a “desire and aspiration” product range. You really don’t need it as there are cheaper and safe enough options, but you still want to buy it as it is stylish to do so. I do believe this is where consumptiveness lies. In the consumption of the brands that you don’t really need or want, but options that you desire and aspire for. Thanks to advertising. Thanks to peer pressure. And thanks indeed to the purchasing power of your pocket.

A city is therefore really in many ways the aggregation of a large number of people who are on the bandwagon of overt consumption. Every city will therefore have an eclectic mix of a small number of people who are consumers at the bottom end of the pyramid of possibility.

There are mid-market buyers who are really unsure where they belong. And then there are up-market consumptive folks who will buy anything that offers the allure, the brand name and the sense of belonging that brands seem to offer ever so effortlessly to those who crave for it.

What’s the point of this definition and debate? I do believe cities need to take care. Aggregations of people who live in the big cities of the day, Bangalore included, at times seem to lose a sense of right and wrong. Consumption has a slow and creeping manner of converting to consumptiveness. One never really knows when one has gotten consumptive and greedy for it all.

Marketers will always rub their hands in glee as consumption becomes overt and vulgar consumptiveness. The consumer is the one who needs to watch out. A great way of doing this is to check your shopping basket for a start. And then your dining out habits. And then your entertainment-seeking habits. Do a thorough audit. Just to see if you are a reasonably simple consumer or a consumptive entity on the fast-track.
And why must one be watchful?

Simply because we live in a country and a world that has an adverse skew of the have-nots versus the haves. Because resources are short and the unmet needs and wants of millions are just too large. Because a complex world wants to become simple in a bid to survive the uncertainties of the future. Because the future is difficult.

And, very simply, because consumption that is overt and vulgar makes us vulgar and overt. Something we don’t want to be. Or do we?

The answer, my dear friends, is blowing in the winds of our making.

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