Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

The Spirit of South Haven

Published in Strays.

Our shopper in focus approaches the first of three sets of sliding glass doors. Each opens on cue for him, each acting as a layer of protection between he and the so-called natural elements. It should be noted that the word “elements” is a particularly curious term here. The barriers have been implemented in such a fashion to prevent too much of the outside world from getting in, potentially contaminating what is broadly referred to as “The Spirit of South Haven.” Excluded from entry into the South Haven Center for Retail Therapy and Identity Enhancement are any elements that might breach the facility’s Rules for Entry and Codes of Conduct, including but not exclusive to: air that falls below the minimal standards for filtration established by Section I of the 2042 North-Mid-Eastern Regional Clean Airspace Act, any outside food or drink, and all non-participatory pseudo consumers. Having cleared the checkpoints and passed through the gates, a climate controlled Eden awaits.

Once inside, our curious inspector assumes his role as witness to a parade already in progress; one which plays out daily between the hours of ten o’clock a.m. and eight o’clock p.m. For all who enter, South Haven offers a circus of wonder, full of spectacle and potential, a panoply of would-be identities on display in every storefront, shop, and boutique, with personal customization at the heart of every interaction. Per Section IV, Subsection F of the Rules for Entry and Codes of Conduct, “Those who fail to observe and present themselves with respect to the regionally-recognized retail etiquette guidelines will be denied future entry, only to be reinstated by way of a signed and dated Re-confirmation of Intent form, authorized and approved by the Center’s Wellness Director.” As it had been for much of the past week, this stipulation was on his mind today.

“Try on a fresh you,” one kiosk attendant cheers, smiling ear to ear as she gently guides her hands toward a holographic mock-up of how the passer-by would appear with an oral enhancement treatment, sponsored by GEICO. “A smile so bright, your friends will need sunglasses,” the next salesperson adds, bowing slightly to the same woman as she passes by. “And we all know nothing prevents vision damage better than Ray-Ban’s patented microscopic elemental filtering technology.” Without making eye-contact, the shopper keeps walking, but within two more strides the salesperson blurts out, “Raise awareness for Haiti by shopping at The Sunglass Hut.”

Our person of interest watches, listens, and keeps his distance as he trails behind the woman. Five days a week he now arrives at the South Haven Center for Retail Therapy and Identity Enhancement sometime around noon, wearing large headphones that keep his hoodie draped just low enough over his forehead such that it becomes difficult to make eye contact with him. His headphones are never turned on, however. He wears them only to discourage anyone from thinking he can hear them. This, he has found, cuts sales pitches by approximately ninety percent. The remaining ten percent he ignores completely, despite running the risk of violating a stipulation within Section IV, Subsection C of the Rules for Entry and Codes of Conduct, which states that entrants must participate in at least one meaningful interaction with a Retail Concierge per South Haven visit.

The sweatshirt worn by our hooded avenger has become his shopping mall uniform. It was purchased Tuesday, April third at one twenty-five p.m., and despite his daily visits for the better part of the past thirteen weeks, remains the last item he bought at South Haven. The hoodie’s pattern is barely noticeable from a distance, with whispers of light grey clouds transposed over an otherwise dark grey material. On the chest a message reads “TAKE RISKS” in jagged, bold print typed over a mushroom cloud graphic which vaguely camouflages the word “Nike” within its design. A Style Liaison by the name of Ariel picked the garment out for him, calling it “the perfect way to neutralize ozone exposure while communicating the frustrations he’d documented in the most recent update of his Self-Expression Inventory.” Per Section IV, Subsection J of the Rules for Entry and Codes of Conduct, the third of the three sets of glass doors to South Haven opens only if the potential shopper has completed a Purchasing Questionnaire and maintained appropriate updates made within the past ninety calendar days. This restriction had been implemented to eliminate certain undesirable elements from entering South Haven, particularly those which have no intention of making a purchase. “Undesirable,” however, was never the official language used. “Non-participatory pseudo consumers” is the official term, though such individuals are largely referred to as NPCs by Retail Concierges, Style Liaisons, and Identity Gurus, among the host storefront workers employed at South Haven’s four hundred and eighty-six retail hubs.

Purchasing Questionnaires developed as a natural extension of the Personal Identity Files which had been implemented at the regional level in the North-Mid-Eastern zone around the same time as the Regional Clean Airspace Act had. The publicly recognized intention of these files was to warehouse data in support of better servicing residents’ consumer-based decisions. Over time, however, Purchasing Questionnaires became tailored to align individuals with more than retail habits and consumer goods, but the causes they had become associated with. Self-Expression Inventories were a later addition to the process, allowing individuals to “share candid information about themselves which might not otherwise be reflected within the questionnaire.” Tastes and preferences data, culled from reports filed by Predictive Retail Therapists, were then sent to salespeople via an automated push notification when shoppers came within a certain number of steps of their unique storefront. This information is what Ariel was referencing when she approached with the sweatshirt.

On the day of his hoodie purchase, our target consumer had made a rare update to his Purchasing Questionnaire. This was his first update in several weeks, and upon entering the Center he was greeted with new messages, products, and offers that corresponded with the comments added to his Personal Identity File from the Lifestyle Analyst who had been assigned to his case. After filing his Self-Expression Inventory and logging her notes in the Communication Index, an automated keyword search produced an interpretation of potential choices from which an Emotional Affect Indicator could be drawn. In this case, the Emotional Affect Indicator produced only two themes from which a Predictive Retail Therapist named Gaston would use to make his shopping recommendations. His “best fit elections,” as they were recognized internally, were a series of brand suggestions tailored to best match the updated analysis from incoming Purchasing Questionnaire updates. In this case the two themes which were identified were “restlessness” and “solastalgia.”

While his training in holistic product alignment had rarely failed him, Gaston had never seen the latter term before. Instead of pinging any of his colleagues and risking the potential embarrassment resulting from a senior team member failing to properly interpret a basic theme analysis, he focused on the former term, pairing the data with nine potential brand and cause (B&C) matches. Nike was not the highest ranking B&C match for our agent of change, though the brand did rank highly for him based on its recently deployed campaign embracing those struggling with “consumption fatigue.”

This message had tested highly among a sample population of Tier II Knowledge Compliant twenty-one to twenty-two year old mixed-race males. After considerate deliberation from its internal team of strategists, the marketing campaign was deployed in the North-Mid-Eastern region, paired with a series of memos addressed to all area Predictive Retail Therapists which read, “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: After thorough consumer segmentation trials, Nike is issuing a key update to its product strategy via a new apparel line serving the needs of today’s values-conscious consumers. Nike has established that among the target population (as outlined in Research Addendum I) is becoming increasingly invested in a message of ‘risk-taking.’ Further, among numerous as-yet developing youth-movements, Nike is increasingly seen as one of the leading brands championing causes that matter to ‘real’ people, to ‘free thinkers,’ and to ‘individuals.’” Gaston had noted several of these keywords in his most recent database update, and upon processing his query for “restlessness” and seeing the phrases return on his screen, he added Nike to his list of best fit selections. “Accordingly,” continued the memo, “Nike finds itself in the enviable position of maintaining adherence to regional retail oversight policy while also expanding brand acceptance among several key demographics which are each seeking broader representation in the consumer retail space. The dangers of encouraging un-approved self-expression notwithstanding, Nike is committed to maintaining its position as a chief brand advocate for these ‘risk taking’ ‘individuals’ by way of our new TAKE RISKS campaign. To mark the beginning of a new era, Nike has established TAKE RISKS as the brand of choice for the next generation of social justice tastemakers seeking to establish and extend their own personal brand identities.”

In his Self-Expression Inventory update, our “restless” consumer also added a note regarding his frustrations with the Personal Identity File system, commenting on how his “whole life had been shaped just to get him to buy more stuff.” “Everywhere I go people know so much about me but I still feel like a stranger no matter where I am,” he closed. “Everything has changed. Any of it for the better? No one seems to care.”

“Try on the new you… same as the old you,” our man of few words reflected to himself as one of the store’s six Style Liaisons approached him with her arms outstretched, sweatshirt in hand. She introduced herself with a smile, noting that if he needed anything he could call for her by name, before explaining that Nike was a key voice in favor of legislation that would reinstate non-participatory pseudo consumers, allowing them to engage in zone-sponsored civic gatherings. While our soon-to-be-hooded shopper didn’t actually know any non-participatory pseudo consumers, he regularly thought about opting out of the Purchasing Questionnaire. Doing so would result in a reclassification of his Personal Identity File however and due to the broader implications of taking such an action he had never come close to submitting such a formal declaration of intent. “Nike is committed to considering campaign finance reductions to government heads in zones which are proposing opposition to such legislation,” continued Ariel, firmly believing our increasingly disinterested listener was interested in hearing what she had to say. “And as a representative for Nike, just between you and me,” she added, lowering her voice as a coy smile overtook her face, “I couldn’t be happier to work for a company that is supporting causes that matter to people like you and me.”

In the weeks that followed, Nike continued its campaign, rolling out increasingly expensive, increasingly limited item variations under its TAKE RISKS line. Without knowing it, our lucky consumer purchased what would become a highly desired collector’s item, his sweatshirt being the first edition of the same model later adorned by leading members of a highly visible social advocacy group known as theBRM (Back to Real Movement). Prior to the North-Mid-Eastern zone’s annual legislative summit—an event itself presented by Puma, which had recently branded its recent line of signature footwear as “the soul of the people”—nine prominent members of theBRM staged a brief takeover of the hearing, interrupting the House Speaker’s address to zone representatives. In doing so they began to present “theBRM Manifesto,” composed of a brief list of demands “on behalf of the real people.” This list largely focused on talking points aimed at rolling back legislation surrounding a proposed Personal Identity File expansion. “We, of the real people of this zone, demand to have our privacy restored,” one member shouted, having overtaken the House Speaker’s podium temporarily before being restrained by security. 

Three years prior, a group of five protestors approached a hearing by the Lower-South zone’s Chamber of Policy on Habitat Oversight with their own “list of considerations.” Loosely referencing environmental policy, the group’s “considerations” were presented without any specific demands, or recommendations made toward the regulatory agenda items that were up for renewal at that specific meeting. Yet, the interruption made waves as this act of real-life advocacy was almost unheard of at the time. In fact, it harkened back to days of yesteryear, before the worlds of consumer products and activism became inseparable. Not long after a brief media spike, however, and aided by a smattering of regional coverage of the group and its “considerations,” one of the protestors issued a response on his YouTube channel, acknowledging that the group of “grassroots” activists had in fact been actors on Wal-Mart’s payroll, sent into the zone to promote the brand’s new “think clean” initiative. 

“If we at Wal-Mart are guilty of anything,” read the company’s public statement made in response to the video, “it is of caring about the state of the Lower-South zone and the well-being of its residents. Wal-Mart believes strongly in respecting the environment we all share, and it is out of respect for future generations of advocates that the company embraced the spirit of protest.” While Wal-Mart’s stunt was quickly greeted with tepid sales, theBRM’s public demonstration was a financial boon for Nike. Recognizing an opportunity to align the brand with any number of outstanding public causes, the company released waves of promotional updates to Predictive Retail Therapists nation-wide in wake of the event, capitalizing on the TAKE RISKS campaign and its place as “the voice of the real™.”

With none of that in mind, however, our unintentional champion of “the real™” continues to walk with his head down, keeping to himself while following his stranger of the day. “My name is Jasmine,” a clerk several shops down says, greeting the woman, who was already approaching the storefront’s entrance. “And I’m a Yankee Candle Wellness Integration Assistant. Would you like to try our new aroma-therapy for racial equality collection?”

Long before our reluctant candle sniffer was old enough to fully understand what much of what they were talking about, his parents would tell him stories of how this picture came to be, with products and causes becoming so tightly aligned. “Even back when our own parents were still very young everything had logos everywhere,” their story went. “And from what they told us, they grew up feeling like all of it had lost any kind of meaning or purpose.” More to the point, they continued, “Actually, by the time we were born, advertising had become sort of useless.” That was until one cunning corporate strategist made a bold move, they said, “Which was replicated by just about every company everywhere.” “Not long after we finished school and were trying to get jobs of our own, Jimmy Dean Breakfast Bowls became the official meal of ‘conservative family values.’” Branding had never been proposed like that before, in such a way that a product might explicitly market itself as representing something like “family values.” Tyson Foods’ stock price shot up overnight as sales of Breakfast Bowls skyrocketed. “It was what’s now referred to as consumer nobility projection,” learned our impromptu marketing student as his father continued, “and almost overnight, buying products once again became a viable means of self-expression. That’s how we got started, actually.”

In some ways it was a joke taken too far, but within weeks, Cracker Barrel had co-opted the tactic, raising the stakes by branding itself the “official restaurant of American values.” And it worked. “We had just gotten into the business, and it was our job to try to find new ways to get new people to buy old things,” our only halfway-attentive listener’s mother explained. “At first it worked—it worked great—and these ways that companies were embodying ideals started to shift how people saw themselves through their purchases. Consumption molded people’s personas, which of course started to influence not only who shopped where and bought what, but why they did so!”

Cracker Barrel had always been a restaurant promoting certain “family values.” Rocking chairs and hard candy, antique looking knick knacks and Oakridge Boys’ music—the pieces were already there, so promoting itself as a literal beacon for what had previously only been implied was hardly a stretch. The change came as decades of sales data began to feed into what would become Personal Identity Files, creating with them a system to interpret which brands and products should be referred to whom, and which causes brands would best help raise awareness to drive consumer sales. Zone-sanctioned sales of Personal Identity Files to companies followed, increasing revenues for local municipalities while, in exchange, the endless bounty of consumer-level data became a key driver for B&C strategy implementation.

Despite his parents’ direction, even at an early age, our well-enough-informed shopper became absorbed by the allure of making purchases which publicly reinforced his own personal value system. In high school, for example, he and his friends retaliated against the Chinese government’s violent overthrow of Tibet by shopping at Target. Target, at the time, was the official shopping destination of Tibetian Independence, and he and his friends firmly believed they were on the frontlines of taking charge for the cause.

Now he felt something different. There was a vague ache that slowly began to grow within him. Yankee Candle was, he thought to himself while side-stepping the Wellness Integration Assistant, a perfect encapsulation of where this system—no, this country!—had caved in on itself. He, of Cuban and English descent, didn’t consider himself particularly prone to racial injustice, though he was raised in a family that took very seriously the value of racial equality. It was important to his parents, for example, that he was raised a certain way, with certain beliefs, with an understanding of what constituted equality, and how centuries of inequality still managed to influence today’s society and culture. They cautioned him as best they could about the backstage machinations behind processes like B&C matching, but also supported him to make his own decisions. So that’s what he did. And in this way, he had long-since felt informed, or informed enough, and knew that when faced with the potential of purchasing something like a candle, he was more likely to purchase that candle from a company promoting the concept of racial justice than one that didn’t. Because how could he not? But over the past twelve weeks, five days, twenty-three hours and fifty-six minutes something had changed. It was at this moment it all flashed through his mind. Maybe today was the day he would opt-out?

Stepping away from his processing unit for his mid-day wellness break, Gaston remained puzzled. There was something he couldn’t let go of, the unfamiliar theme he had discovered earlier in the day. “Solastalgia,” he smirked, talking to himself out loud while powering on his mobile resource assistant and inserting the communication piece into his ear, “what am I even supposed to do with that?” Speaking quietly, so as to avoid having anyone overhear him, he asks, “Query: What does solastalgia mean?” “Your keyword yields two results,” a voice immediately confirms in his ear, “both located in the historical language glossary. Solastalgia, a form of eco-anxiety or depression caused by environmental change. Solastalgia, a homesickness one experiences when still at home.” What, thought Gaston, could that Lifestyle Analyst have added to the Communication Index which might have resulted in such a theme showing up for him? “Homesick when you’re already home—it makes no sense to me,” he says to himself as he takes off his shoes and steps up into a reinvigoration chamber. “No sense at all.”

Neither he nor they had ever lived through it, but our soon-to-be-christened non-participatory pseudo consumer had listened to many stories from his parents about a time before pocket-sized ventilation systems and microscopic elemental filtering technologies became daily necessities. Sunlight exposure in excess of seven consecutive minutes wasn’t considered a zone-recognized safety hazard then. Maybe it was sometime back when his grandparents were alive, he’d estimated. He’d listen to his parents and their stories, though he never fully believed that people felt safe wearing clothing made from something other than ozone neutralizing hybrid-materials. It all seemed so strange to him. So unnatural, and he could never reconcile the stories and their opposing messages. For example, this was long before Personal Identity File-sales subsidized the region’s universal basic income, so many more people worked then, but from what our deep thinker could muster, most people dislike their jobs. What inspired people not to give up, he wondered. How could that be any better than what we’ve got now, he often thought to himself.

“Which of our three new scents would you like to try,” our deep-thinker hears barely avoiding bumping into one of the shop’s several Aroma Provisioners. “Perhaps ‘Inquisitive,’” she adds, “A scent for the most considerate minds.” “No, I’m not interested in candles,” he says back. Without realizing it, the volume of his voice shifts dramatically as he quickly follows that up by blurting out, “I’m not interested in any of this!” “Sir, I would like to remind you of the etiquette guidelines. If you’ll please lower your voice I’m sure we can find you exactly what you need.” “No one needs any of this! And it’s not just you, it’s everyone here,” he shouts, his voice echoing so loudly that The Sunglass Hut attendant takes notice. “All these stores! All any of this does is make us feel like we’re not enough—not doing enough. All these causes, all these values—you don’t help anything, you just make us feel like we’re part of the problem if we don’t buy into whatever’s on sale this week!” Spinning around ever so slightly, our fuming powder keg of a man inadvertently knocks over a display case featuring another of the store’s three new scents; this one called, “Contentedness.”  

It was at that moment that the Center’s Wellness Director received a series of control panel alerts ranging from a low-range update about a minor infraction to an urgent notification of a high-level violation. Sometimes whole days would go by between alerts notifying her of issues in the Center, but suddenly three came in in rapid succession. “Violation: Section IV, Subsection C,” reads the first line. “Subsection C,” the Director says to herself, “That one’s… that’s… a Retail Concierge transgression. Oh, well, a hostile or unwanted consumer interaction in violation of the meaningful interaction policy never looks good on someone’s personal record, does it?” she says to herself. “Violation: Per Section IV, Subsection F,” the next line reads. “Which is obviously a breach of retail etiquette,” she adds, knowingly connecting the two issues before reading the third, and highest level, alert. “Violation: Section IV, Subsection J.” “How?” she gasps, kicking out her chair while leaping to her feet. “How did they even get inside?” “Wait, all three are on the second floor?” she yells over to the Holistic Wellness Officers at the pod of workstations outside her office. “Yankee Candle? This can’t be the same person?!”

Among the Codes of Conduct on his mind this day, Section IV, Subsection J was not one of them. Our now raging ball of frustration realized he was likely at risk of breaching etiquette guidelines before he even entered the Center, but had completely forgotten all about Subjection J. It’s Subsection J that states that a Purchasing Questionnaire must be completed, appropriate updates added and maintained within the past ninety calendar days. While Section IV, Subsection F can be resolved by the completion of a Re-confirmation of Intent form, a violation the likes of of Subjection J cannot. It results in what Retail Concierges, Style Liaisons, Identity Gurus and the like refer to as NPC status. The time was twelve twenty-six p.m., precisely ninety days after our newly minted non-participatory pseudo consumer had submitted his last Purchasing Questionnaire. In that instant, he had become an undesirable element.

Entering the candle store behind two of the Wellness Officers, the Director speaks directly to our cross-legged center of attention, who is now sitting on the floor clenching a pair of candles from the store’s “Inspiration” collection. “Sir, we need you to come with us,” says the Director, as her aids clear the remainder of the startled shoppers out of the store. “You have tarnished the Spirit of South Haven,” she adds before being cut short. “My parents told me that if you want to make the world a better place you have to start with where the power has gone. I don’t have any power, but you do. This place does. And for months now, all I’ve done is follow people. Watching them give you more and more while thinking to myself, ‘How can I ever do anything that will actually make a difference?’” “Sir, you canno—” “But they never told me how to make a difference, never told me how I could make the world a better place. So last night I asked them and they said they don’t know. They said no one knows. That’s the thing, I want to do right, I want to help, I want to make the world a better place, as if anyone can ever even do that?” Letting go of the candles, his hands quickly rise to his face as he begins to weep openly into his palms.

The Wellness Officers bring him to his feet and place his arms behind his back while starting to escort him out of the candle store. “Can it get any more real than that, people?” Chirps Ariel, welcoming shoppers toward the double-doors of Nike’s entranceway. “There goes a real independent thinker, a real individual,” she adds as a small crowd begins to gather around her. “And if you want to let the world know you care about it as much as we all do, you need to show people you’re willing to do what it takes!” Just behind her a pair of Style Liaisons hold up a selection of hoodies, each bearing the same TAKE RISKS emblem adorned by our unintentional trendsetter.

The Officers continue walking, and each step brings them closer to the sliding glass doors, closer to the barrier between those inside and the undesirable elements. The natural elements. As the first door opens a whoosh of air greets the men. The second opens and the last faint sounds of Ariel’s voice fade behind them. The final door slides open and with it our defeated idealist lets out a cry as he falls to the ground. “I just want to go home,” he wails. “I just want to go home.”