Thoughts on “peak stuff”

A few months ago, Ikea’s ‘Chief Sustainability Officer’ made the news when he suggested that we’ve reached ‘peak stuff’. The specific example Ikea’s Greg Howard used was ‘peak curtains’, but what he meant was, many consumers in developed nations have all the stuff they need. 

After Ikea's Greg Howard talked about the west being at 'peak stuff' people wondered how that idea could possibly be consistent with the chain's growth targets. Clearly, Ikea can continue to grow at the expense of its competitors' market share. But mature consumers already know that bigger isn't better, and more isn't better. 

After Ikea's Greg Howard talked about the west being at 'peak stuff' people wondered how that idea could possibly be consistent with the chain's growth targets. Clearly, Ikea can continue to grow at the expense of its competitors' market share. But mature consumers already know that bigger isn't better, and more isn't better. 

That was obvious. In the U.S., homes have gotten bigger and families have gotten smaller; you’d think that means American homeowners have more space than ever, right? And yet, storage lockers are a fast-growing business, precisely because people really do have too much stuff.

But if it was obvious, why was it news? The answer is, it was newsworthy because it was coming from a retailer. Ikea, after all, is in the stuff business; it’s one of the world’s largest suppliers of stuff. So it seemed an unlikely admission. And, suggesting that people are consuming too much is almost un-American.

Or is it?

Mature consumers are already ‘downsizing’. Empty nesters are selling big homes in the suburbs and moving into lofts downtown. They’re ditching the massive SUVs and people haulers they needed to chauffeur their kids to hockey practice, in favor of smaller hybrids that get better gas mileage, are easier to park—and, by the way, are way more fun to drive.

The thing you need to understand about peak stuff is, from a mature consumer’s perspective, less really is more. Especially because the older you get, the more you know that nothing, or at least no thing, is really going to make you happy.

Younger consumers chase the latest trend, in the hopes that some brand or gadget will make them seem cool to friends who've bought into the same fad, but older consumers are far more skeptical. That doesn’t mean older consumers don’t want to spend, or won’t. It just means that we spend differently.

Mature consumers don’t want more or bigger; we want better. And while we are less likely to think some thing will make us happy, we’re more likely to spend on experiences. That’s why we account for such a large share of money spent on travel. (The ‘bucket list’? That’s a real thing with us.)

So if your brand’s growth is stalled and you think you’re bumping up against peak stuff, take another look at mature consumers. Want to attract us? Understand that bigger isn’t better. More isn’t better. Better is better.

Rather than making empty promises that a newer, bigger thing will make us happy—promises that we disproved decades ago—tell us why your product or service is better. Make the pursuit of happiness as rational a decision as possible. Better yet, offer us experiences—something we can collect while filling our hearts and minds, instead of our closets.

Embracing the idea of peak stuff is better for the planet and future generations. (Ironically, the longer you’ve lived, more you care about the future!) But that doesn’t mean it’s bad for business. If anything, it should be better.