The Vacillating Nostalgia Appeal

New Year’s is a time to think back as well as look ahead. Therefore, it is a time when toy and game nostalgia is in full bloom. Earlier this week, Kim succumbed with her “Good games don’t die – They get reincarnated” posting. But in forward-facing societies, nostalgia does have a vacillating appeal. Come next March, nostalgia may have faded as quickly as January’s health club memberships and diet plan participation.

It was way back, more than forty years ago, that Saul Bellow wrote of recollections, “Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” A few years later, famed San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen—who vehemently complained about each new tall building in his city by the bay—wrote, “Nostalgia is memory with the pain removed.”

Researchers at City University Of New York–Staten Island and New Jersey Institute of Technology looked at it more scientifically. After analyzing written descriptions of 164 nostalgic experiences provided by 62 individuals, the researchers teased out nostalgia’s bittersweet blend of positives (warmth, elation, tenderness, and gratitude) with negatives (sadness, irritation, and fear). When we reminisce about the joys of toys from the past, we’re in part insulating ourselves from trepidations about our future.

GreatPuzzleShopClock There have always been shoppers who treasure mementoes from years ago. So it’s not news that there are merchants who accommodate them with antique toasters, music tracks from old LP records reissued as MP3 downloads, and out-of-print etiquette books. In 2004, Pacific Cycle brought out a redo of the Schwinn Sting-Ray, arousing memories of a bicycle loved by kids growing up a generation before. What is new is the more widespread draw of nostalgia.

Why? I agree with the other consumer psychologists who attribute it in large part to the economic downturn. People began yearning for softer times. Or what they recall as being softer times. The fact is a fair amount of research indicates that when things get really tough, we distort memories of the past to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

Following the euphoria in Russia after the downfall of the USSR, the Russian economy turned ugly. Many Russians reacted to their economic miseries by buying fashions with hammer-and-sickle logos to remind them of the supposedly good days of dictatorship. And the Chinese are getting downright nostalgic for Chairman Mao Zedong, that fellow who, during the Cultural Revolution, ordered pocket watches and silk scarves to be seized from citizens. But now, Mao souvenirs—such as bronze busts ($85 US), snow globes ($6.95), and key chains ($4.25) are being featured on Taobao, the Chinese equivalent of eBay.

For as long as the nostalgia appeal lasts, I suggest you set higher retail margins on items that carry this appeal and can be presented to the public as being nostalgic. But don’t overstock. The buyer psychology pendulum will swing back again. Remember my using the Schwinn Sting-Ray reincarnation as an example? Well, the Sting-Ray garnered an award as the 2004 Toy Industry Association Outdoor Toy of the Year. But only two years later, Dorel, the Pacific Cycles parent company by then, decided to take a loss of $3.5 million on its remaining Sting-Ray bicycle inventory in order to convince retailers to sell off the bikes.

In that instance, nostalgia was so last year.

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