Why History and Context Matter When Gathering Market Research Insights


Apparently, there has been a major shift in the attitudes and behavior of teens. Enclosed malls have lost their cache with the American public, and dying malls have become a part of our landscape. In the on-line age, the brick and mortar retailer is less relevant. So, it is reported by Piper Jaffray that "teen mall traffic has declined by 30% over the past decade."

This makes intuitive sense. If malls are declining in general, then teen visits to the mall ought to be less frequent. But, the report goes on to note that teens are now spending more on food and events than than on clothes for the first time in the 27 years of Piper Jaffray's survey of teens. As John McDuling notes:

"Quietly, the restaurant has displaced the mall as the socially acceptable place to hang out for teenagers in America. Restaurants have become a gathering place and teens are increasingly suggesting they prefer dining out to other forms of status brand spending." The report goes on to say, "We see restaurants as the next generation hangout for teens."

There is a certain breathlessness to this vision of teens discovering restaurants. Did they eat at home before this? Haven't food courts been fixtures of malls? In fact, haven't teens always hung out in "restaurants"? What about the Malt Shops of the 30s, 40s, and 50s? What about the drive-ins of teen car culture in the 60s? Doesn't the action of American Graffiti revolve around Mel's? I grew up in an exurb that did not have an enclosed mall until the 80s. To this day, I can still name the restaurants my friends and I met in even though none of them exist today. Teens have always hung out in restaurants. For that matter, humankind has always congregated around fire and food.

Why is this distinction important and not simply a quibble over an historical nicety? Context determines action. How I position human behavior determines how I react to it. If I were managing restaurants and wished to appeal to teens, I would make a very different set of operational and communications decisions if I saw their interest in my establishments as reflecting some novel trend than if I envision it as a return to some fundamental kind of human behavior - Novelty vs. tradition... Excitement vs. comfort.

Of course, if I remember how we acted in those restaurants years ago -- how little we spent and how long we stayed -- I might not want to attract teens. But, that is another issue.

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