Hurricane season is officially over here in South Florida. Not to say that we can't unclench our teeth through the end of 2020 (the bad news just keeps on coming), but we can breathe a very small sigh of relief that a mega-storm is less likely this year for Floridians. This year saw its share of hurricane activity, exhausting the list of named storms, stretching deep into the Greek alphabet.
That extension this year into "The Greeks" has an interesting intersection in our current pandemic-times economic indicators and makes me ask: What happens when we've exhausted our plans? What next? And, importantly, what are the indicators that show we're on the road to recovery?
The Comfort Index
The "Waffle House Index" is an unofficial measure of hurricane severity. The 24-hour diner chain never closes. It is always staffed, always open, and surprisingly ubiquitous across the Southeastern United States. It is understood, then, that "If Waffle House is closed, it must be really bad." This means that staff is expected to operate through the storm until, well, they cannot. This includes the operations and payroll teams in central offices.
The Waffle House Index shows us that even in the worst of circumstances there is still demand for a product, provided there is still supply available. Truck drivers, first responders, and others rely on the diner chain not just for convenience, but for comfort, especially when they have a job that demands their performance despite the inherent dangers. Their need for escape and comfort can be serviced by such a business.
The same element of comfort found by late-night hurricane patrons eating hash browns can be had, digitally, by folks weathering a different kind of a storm — an economic storm caused by a rapid-spread pathogen. The comfort people receive from having normalcy and predictability — not to mention escape — during times of crisis, is what defines a brand's value on The Comfort Index. Inputs into the Comfort Index include extreme predictability, ready availability, affordability, and escapism. Waffle House? Check, check, check and... check.
We see a yearning for retail experiences that would theoretically rank high on the Comfort Index as stores remain open, deemed as essential, during periods of regional shutdowns. Mundane shopping outings became a form of entertainment during the Spring Lockdown in the United States, something we explored in Insiders #035: Mourning the Loss of Retail Therapy:
The [Walmart] manager described a situation where some people would come into Walmart just to walk around for hours to get out of being stuck at home. “Walmart has become like Disney World”
Stable, available, affordable. Walmart would rank high on The Comfort Index.
While online commerce is impervious to the designation of essential vs non-essential, the behind-the-scenes operations are not. What upsets the apple cart is when jurisdictions rule between essential and non-essential at the item-level, deciding what can and cannot be consumed during such moments of crisis. This kind of austerity, as seen in grocery store aisles blocking candy, beer, and wine in Wales and in Northern Ireland, causes undue stress and is met with fierce opposition. After all, the comfort is found in Waffle House, not the waffles themselves.
Unsurprisingly, comfort is closely tied to another area of growth in recent days.
The Merch-Capable Index
Here's a segue for you: Waffle House has a merch store where you can not only buy hoodies, but their uncooked hashbrowns packaged into refrigerated 6oz milk cartons. That should come as unsurprising to those of you who follow our weekly newsletter, The Senses, where we've covered the rise of ironic merch rollouts.
Brands like Mucinex, Stouffers (yes, the lasagna people), and Dunkin Donuts, have all dabbled in merch this year as they cater to shoppers with a little less travel money, a little more stimulus money, and an influencer-powered Gen Z need to celebrate irony. As we wrote in our Spring 2020 Nine by Nine Report:
Unlike millennial brands, [Gen Z] wants brands that show a form of flawed beauty - a form of undoneness. Brands able to achieve this delicate balance will allow CARLY to bring them into her own context, and in so doing make her experience that much more personal.
The creator-led branded merch phenomenon is surprising to you if you don't understand the above, or you don't understand the closet capacity for the acquisition of yet-another-hoodie. Conspicuous consumption isn't relegated only to the post-Millennials. We went further into the idea that absurdism-meets-consumption in Insiders #045: The New Dadaists:
The absurdist movement... comes during a reaction to the perfect and the pristine. “Zillennials”, Millennial-Gen-Z cuspers, were the first of the conspicuous consumers flaunting Crocs and Stouffer’s sweats because they’re fugly—a sort of “F.U.” to Instagram perfection. They love Dunkin because it ain’t Starbucks.
Peddling merch to a hungry anti-perfection crowd who are locked at home in a TikTok algo-spiral gives one the overtones of late-capitalism. Consider the dichotomy of the most activist, climate-aware generation to exist in our lifetimes being duped into conspicuously consuming for the shiggles of it all.
To Dave's point, the Merch-Capable Index is an indicator that you not only have a brand; but you have a brand that people associate with, if not to fit into a crowd, but to distinguish yourself as being absent from another. Few are the brands that reach cultural awareness the likes of which branded apparel can act as a vehicle for social group signaling and belonging. It's not merely that people buy the merch. It's that they use it to flag social status or group affiliation.
Sadly there is no Waffle House podcast for me to segue into the concept of niche media validation of this new market. While brands become media, media are fast becoming retailers. In a later piece, we will take a look at how niche media properties are validating new markets in the merch and comfort space. From Mukbang YouTube to merch-focused newsletters, there are reverberations of these two phenomena throughout the retail world.
What can we take away from this? Here are some thought-starters:
- Comfort comes in many forms. There is an appetite for escapism for those who are mentally or emotionally distressed, provided there is a steady supply of it available. Consider how your business operates during times of crisis, and how you can be a haven for those looking to escape.
- Does your brand have the ability to signal social group involvement? If not, there is an existential question to ask: do you know who your customer is, and where she sits in the world. How does she fit into society? Where does she belong? If you don't know the answer, you should take strides to find it.
Finally, don't add to the noise, and don't add to the waste. At this point, we don't need more branded merch waste in the world. But what we learn from these moments will help us to understand trends when they arise and how we tell the story of our brands within them.