Schizophrenic Nation

Mixed Nuts

Whimsical consumer behavior is not a recent development. "I learned a long time ago [when running focus groups] that you're a fool if you expect consistency from consumers," says Myra Stark, senior vice president of knowledge management and consumer insight for advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi in New York City. "In a focus group, the same consumers will say they believe one thing and, minutes later, say the exact opposite."

Such fickleness may be a symptom of human nature, says Stark. "We get carried away by the moment," she explains. "One minute we hear a compelling argument and are swayed. But the next minute we may be swayed by something else."

In a culture as diverse and evanescent as ours, the potential for new allegiances is nearly limitless. "We live in a society with strong trends and counter trends," Stark asserts. "As a result, we all have contradictory belief systems, and we have to live with that."

The tug of war between trends and counter trends isn't necessarily new, but its current expression is. Today, it's not just diversity between Americans that makes the difference: It's also diversity within Americans.

Courtney sees this diversity every day in her jewelry boutique. "I have customers who come in for a pair of $45 silver earrings one week and return for a $15,000 strand of South Sea pearls the next," she says. "I'm also seeing a lot of young [money-conscious] thirtysomethings spring for nice, expensive pieces as a treat for themselves."

The bottom line: Making assumptions about individual consumers has become nearly impossible. What you see on the surface doesn't even begin to hint at the complexity that lies beneath. That's why, unlike some upscale jewelry retailers, Courtney doesn't try to size up a customer's buying potential by his or her appearance. "It's so ugly for a salesperson to decide whether or not you're a pauper based on how you look," says Courtney.

Ugly, yes, and foolish, too. In today's economic environment, the baby-faced guy in the frumpy coat and jeans just might be a new-media millionaire. The woman in the sweats and sneakers might be an executive on sabbatical. And, as Jim Borsack, 46, co-owner of Las Vegas-based El Portal, a chain of high-end luggage shops, points out, "That guy you don't like the looks of just might be the drummer for Motley Crüe."

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This article was originally published in the March 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Schizophrenic Nation.

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