It's not often that the re-designing of a shelf signals a major new trend: but Ikea's rather unimposing new-look 'Billy' shelves is an unlikely exception. These shelves - previously created to hold books, CDs or DVDs - are being re-designed to hold ornaments and mementoes. Seems mundane? Actually it signals one of the biggest shifts in consumer attitudes in thirty years...
Back in the mid to late '80s, status was key - and simple to define. It was all about show and display. The designer labels you wore defined how important you were. And the music, films and books on your shelves defined how 'cool'. This has to a great extent held true since. But there have been signs of a shift in recent years. The first step was the move from Conspicuous Consumption to Stealth Wealth. Instead of impressing your friends and colleagues with your jewellery or sports car, you now did so with products that had more emotional residence or functionality, such as designer kitchens or baby buggies.
What's happening now is an even bigger step. We are seeing the beginnings of a new social trend I've christened People Not Products. We're starting to care less about owning products than we did, as we begin to value other, 'human' things more. A combination of life-threatening events (from terrorist attacks to global warming) and the economic downturn means many people have been re-assessing what really matters to them. Of course we've not completely given up our love of things. After over fifty years of mass consumerism, it's going to take a lot to completely remove all traces of the shopping bug. But when you are confronted by the possible loss of your loved ones or your job, then your friends and family start seeming much more important - and the handbag or DVD box set you bought last week increasingly less so. And as they do, so we will buy fewer and fewer of them - and fill less of our shelf space with them.
The People Not Products trend is not the only driver of Shelf Death. Another key factor is the growth of digitisation and the falling demand it has created for book, CD and DVD storage. When a subscription to BSkyB or Spotify gives you immediate access to thousands of films or albums, there is less and less point in owning a few dozen - or even a few hundred. I am a case in point. I love music, films and writing. And I love the products attached to them. But even I have started to change. I've put all my CDs into storage, sold the majority of my DVDs and given most of my books to Oxfam. Almost all my recent audio or video purchases have been downloads. In fact, since downloading the Kindle app to my iPad, I haven't set foot in a bookshop - though I've bought dozens of new books digitally. My shelves aren't barren yet: I'm keeping beautifully designed box sets and precious first editions, plus a few DVDs I haven't the heart to let go (I'll probably go to my grave with copies of 'Annie Hall' and 'Blade Runner' clutched to my chest). But, like an increasing number of Britons, the switch to digital means my home's no longer looking like a branch of HMV.
So if we're going to be getting rid of CDs, DVDs and books, what will we put in their place? The answer lies in the People Not Products trend again. And it's what makes Ikea's Billy shelf so important. As we gently lose our desire to display our purchases, our desire to connect with other people is growing. We're spending more time communicating with others than ever before. We're increasingly appreciating unique experiences, from holidays to concerts. And we are more and more interested in the human story behind those products we do buy. The more we value these human interactions, the more we will fill our shelves with evidence of them. When choosing what to display, we'll be driven less by status than by memories, heritage and emotional value. Instead of the latest or 'coolest' books and CDs, don't be surprised to see your friends' shelves increasingly weighed down by, say, some driftwood they found on a holiday in Thailand, crayon drawings made by friends' or family members' children, or vases made by an 80 year old local potter.
From a human point of view, this is a step forward - or perhaps more accurately a positive step backwards. For business, however, it presents a threat. Especially for those businesses that relied on the purchase of mass-market products for their profits. The trick for companies will be to find a way to monetise this trend. This will mean focusing more on heritage than price, more on human interaction than individual consumption and more on uniqueness than status.