It’s probably an inevitable feature of living in a digital era that the things we interact with are, increasingly, not there. Streaming and subscription services let you access a whole world of music or films or books without giving you anything you can actually lay your hands on. Actually owning music (CDs etc) or films (DVDs etc) is starting to feel a little passé.
And the way we pay for all these intangible things is increasingly abstract. Over the last 3000 years or so, we’ve moved from a barter economy (trading things with a practical value, like chickens and pigs) to trading bits of silver and gold (things that ostensibly have a value, despite being useless a lot of the time), to trading things that symbolise silver and gold (paper money) to the even less tangible tapping in of a PIN, or clicking a one-click button, or vaguely waving your contactless card or phone near a card reader.
In other words, transactions are decreasingly rooted in the physical — just as the same thing is happening to some of the things that we’re paying for.
This all raises a lot of questions to do with value. Do streaming services turn things like music and books and films into a commodity? Do we value things like music and books and films differently when we don’t feel like we own them? Is your relation to your favourite album or film the same if you can’t -
a) hold it in your hands or b) pay directly for it, c) all markers of it “belonging” to you have been removed, and d) all sense of exclusivity has been lost through it being infinitely available?
Transactions now require less effort, and discourage any explicit mental value equation (trading two chickens for a pig is a much clearer expression of value than pressing your phone against a reader for a Starbucks). So will this change how much we spend? As what we spend becomes more intangible, we might have less idea what we’re spending — which means we might be willing to spend more of it.
You might have heard that nowadays most of us supposedly value experiences more than things. This could be because we’ve got better at valuing the intangible. Or it could be the opposite — as the “things” become less tangible, maybe they’re losing some of their relative value when compared to experiences.
Either way, it does seem likely that we’ll find it increasingly hard to pin a value on “things” when we’re not quite sure what we’re paying with, or for. And when it comes to market research, this means that pricing research (and consumer research more generally) has a whole new set of factors to take into account, in terms of the way consumers pay for things, the ways this affects what they’re willing to pay, and the changing values they attach to the things they’re paying for.