250 years of consumer habits

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Twice a year I trek eastward to Harvard University to hear the latest research from the Joint Center for Housing Studies' Remodeling Futures Program. During one presentation this October, the speaker referred to "the Diderot effect" in remodeling. Denis Diderot, an 18th-century French philosopher, wrote an essay entitled "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown.

November 01, 2004

Twice a year I trek eastward to Harvard University to hear the latest research from the Joint Center for Housing Studies' Remodeling Futures Program. During one presentation this October, the speaker referred to "the Diderot effect" in remodeling. Denis Diderot, an 18th-century French philosopher, wrote an essay entitled "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown." Upon receiving a beautiful new dressing gown as a gift, Diderot had soon found that his other belongings seemed shabby by comparison. After replacing his furniture, his wall hangings and other possessions, Diderot found himself with a lighter pocketbook and a brand-new formal study.

This desire to present a consistent picture of oneself to the world, as represented by the goods we possess, is what researchers of consumer behavior refer to as "the Diderot effect." We identify with our clothes, our CDs and DVDs, our homes. They tell the world who we are. Both in 18th-century France and 21st-century USA, scholars say, that means constantly acquiring more and better things.

Does this sound like anybody you know? I think of my parents, who a year ago remodeled a powder room and redecorated the living room. That work served to highlight the age of the rest of the home, and they have since replaced the garage door and redecorated the guest room, and are now in the process of planning to remodel the kitchen and master bath, finish the basement and redecorate another bedroom. They are neither materialistic nor extravagant, but they want the house to look nice — to be updated and well maintained — and to sell well when they retire.

No wonder prior customers, when treated properly, provide so much repeat business for remodelers. The Diderot effect is one of those concepts that seems so obvious once you know what it is, but the more you read about it, the more you will understand about not just what your clients do but why they do it.

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