Consumerism and the Reading Terminal Market … Term Paper
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Shopping -- Sale of Popular Culture
A trip to the Reading Terminal Market ("RTM") is illuminating for understanding things about consumer culture and popular culture. The first thing that comes to mind, before the direct observations is just to step back and examine the market itself. There as a time not too long ago when such markets were not really a major factor in popular culture -- shopping malls were king. They were the shiny new toys of the retail world, an essential element of popular culture. Suburban culture was formed in the mall, and the mass market retailers contained in the mall were the drivers of cool. Except today that is not the case. Suburbs are out; kids who grew up in the burbs now want to live in the city. The city is edgy and cool. Most cities are now populated by wealthy cool young people -- the artists, the tech industry workers, the creatives who thrive in the 21st century economy. And the shopping experience has adapted to their needs.
The Reading Terminal Market is bustling. There are no empty stalls. Maybe the mall is busy, too, but nobody cool shops there anymore. A coolhunter would invariably be at some sort of market like this one, or a neighborhood farmer's market, or a microbrewery, or a coffee shop pulling shots of single origin coffee on expensive espresso machines. The cool shopping experience today is urban, as young people have begun to reclaim cities, but want a connection with anything authentic. Historic buildings are in, food from nearby is in, and the shopping experience is less plastic than out there, in Wal-Mart land, where corporate America still rules. Corporate America is uncool; places like the Reading Terminal Market are in now. Here, you get a microcosm of the best of urban America. You have stands that have been around for decades. A wide variety of international foods are available, side-by-side. There is diversity here, albeit in an Americanized format -- nobody is slaughtering chickens in full view here, a site not unusual in many foreign equivalents of this type of market.
If there is a defining trait of the suburban ideal, it is plastic. Everything is clean, polished, plastic and homogenized. A safe response to an unsafe world. At the RTM, a middle path is sought. The building is historical -- an old train station -- but it is clean. The market has stalls like you would find in the third world, but they, too are clean. It is still America, after all. There are foods from all over, but the presentation walks the middle line between the plastic suburban look and the traditional market look. There are glass cases to house most foods -- this consumer base still needs its sanitation.
This is because the consumer base on RTM is still largely "Middle America." Not everybody here is cool -- there are tourists from Virginia in front of me. There are a lot of tourists here, and we all know that tourists aren't really cool. If someone is cool, they don't look like a tourist. But there are locals here, too. The presentation is very much like a sanitized, Americanized version of an old world market, something that has an air of authenticity but is safe for all, and that ultimately is the consumer base that RTM attracts. And it does attract it -- the market is crowded.
Navigating the stalls is part of the experience. Each stall is different, small, and specializing in a specific item. This is part of the presentation. Market stalls are not normal stores; they are part of a collective shopping experience. You are constantly bumping into other shoppers, or stuck behind them, and when you visit a stall the staff are immediate and attentive. This is all part of the shopping experience; the RTM is experience as much as it is products. The experience trends upmarket -- this is not at all the cheapest place to buy most of this stuff -- and the experience is decidedly cool. It is a safe way for people to experience something collective, alive, organic and fun. There are several elements that are critical to the experiential element. For one, many stalls are cash only. Cash is real, authentic, and most certainly cash is not plastic. It is the alternative to plastic, and there is symbolism there, because most retail in America is about plastic. Plastic packaging, plastic goods and plastic cards. There is very little plastic at RTM, to the point where you cannot buy too many things with it -- the market is selling an authentic experience and plastic is not authentic. Cash is.
Promotion is commercialized at a very low level. Neon signs are popular. Neon has a retro 1950s feel, and is cool again. There is a certain art to neon, and its warm glow and throwback vibe fit well with the idea of the authentic shopping experience. But there is no standardization. Each stall seeks to promote its authenticity in different ways. A falafel stall has bags of rice hanging, for no particular reason. Stalls, foods in particular, from all over the world are here -- it's globalization and yet all of it is very local, no large retailers are here. Indeed, the product mix is primarily local. There are mass market products, but not many. Whether the food is junk food or health food -- and they are often found side-by-side at RTM -- almost all of it is local, and not produced by a multinational.
The stalls are reflective of a diverse range of businesses, but some just have to be there. There are ethnic grocers, a microcosm of the American big city, adding character and exposing the tourists to things they otherwise might never see. This is part of the market experience, part of what the market is selling to its visitors. Any market needs a green grocer, a butcher shop, and because this is Philly there needs to be a cheesesteak stall.
Carmen's offers a quintessential market experience as part of its package. First, there are not cheesesteak stalls in all markets -- it's a local thing and markets are inherently local. You won't find a cheesesteak at the Toronto or Austin or Seattle equivalents of RTM. There is a window where you can watch the cheesesteaks being made. The market is not just about product, but the experience, and watching the process is an inherent part of the experience. There is a picture of Barack Obama at Carmen's. This is a form of celebrity endorsement -- it is understood that this is unpaid but the President eating at your stall lends a cachet that, if not actually cool, is at least pretty cool. It means something good about the stall.
A lot of stands have photos of celebrities, because this adds to their credibility. Stands like to promote how old their business is. This is interesting, because most multinationals have been around a long time. Longevity is not associated with authenticity, but it says something positive to the consumer that a small business has been around a long time, because it positions the small business as the heroic underdog, so good that even multinationals cannot beat them. Stands are experiential. If at Carmen's you can watch the cheesesteak being made, other stands offer their own sensory experiences. At Dienner's or Old City Coffee, you smell. Sounds -- sizzling meat, whirring motors and shouting vendors -- are everywhere. If a mall deadens the senses under fluorescent lights and industrial-strength cleaners, the RTM awakens the senses. Again -- it is an experience as much as a collection of products and services.
This is a cool version of low culture. There is not that much high end here. But Philly was never about high culture, and the markets inherently seek to be a reflection of their local areas. This low culture is part of what is being sold, a vision of an America where everybody rubs shoulders, because everybody needs to eat and the market has something for everyone. But it is a collective low culture, rather than an individualized one; the opposite of driving to a mall to wander around by yourself, carefully choosing which stores to enter. There is nothing standoffish about the RTM experience -- everybody is close and people are friendly, neighborly if that word should be used here.
Put together, the market is selling people on an older America. It is a throwback and fits well with the cool aesthetic of a return to the inner city. The older America is one of small business, of immigrants, and of food being made in front of you. This older America is brick buildings in the city, where people bump into each other, where shop owners are friendly, and where there is no plastic. The Reading Terminal Market sells this to all and sundry, but it is no surprise that a lot of tourists are… [END OF PREVIEW]
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