The Future of Consumption: Owning Less, Using More


What is the future of consumption? In a short but rich post at Harvard Business Review, Henry Chesbrough writes about how online targeting allows both sellers and buyers to get specific. Suppliers benefit from new ways to target consumers with smart ads and specialized deals. Consumers benefit from an on-demand distribution of information and the Internet's ability to connect us to almost any market at any time.

He writes:
What's more exciting is how you will consume refrigerators in the near future. Will you even need to buy one? Perhaps manufacturers will lease you a fridge and charge a low monthly rate for managing your refrigeration needs. They might bundle energy costs in as part of the package and then help you find ways to reduce energy usage. They'll probably invite you to share clever ways to use refrigerators, or comment on their own ideas, and innovate even better offerings next time. We will increasingly consume products like refrigeration as services rather than as products. 

If this seems fanciful, just look around at the other things you consume on a regular basis. Do you rent movies on DVD from Blockbuster or view them on Netflix? Do you shell out cash for a printer for your home office, or do you take advantage of Xerox or HP copier services by the page? If you live in a city, do you own a car, or do you turn to ZipCar whenever you happen to need one?

More services, fewer products. More doing things, less owning ... well, things.

Chesbrough got me thinking about the services I use and the products I don't own. I listen to more music than I ever could have ten years ago. But I own almost none of it. Most of the tunes stream from blogs, online radio, and a music-in-the-cloud service called Grooveshark. With Netflix, I can spend the rest of our waking life watching movies without actually owning a single DVD. With Zipcar (which expects an IPO in 2011) and bike sharing (proliferating around the country), I can get on top of wheels I don't own whenever I like. And although tablets represent a great opportunity for publishers to make a play for subscribers, the truth is that the Internet lets me to consume almost every newspaper and magazine in the world for free without anything more than a screen and a connection. 

Music, movies, news, transport ... even printers and kitchen appliances: Are we moving toward a model of consumption that asks us to pay for access, for service, for use, and away from a model that's rooted in money exchanged for hardware? Like any trend-spotter, I'm probably cherry-picking examples to make a point. So tell me where I'm wrong.
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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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