Digital Strategy, Global Insights, Innovation, Leadership

Lessons from Collecting – What Happens When We Don’t Own?

27 Sep , 2023  

Recently, I caught up with a friend that I have known for 30 years. Today, we are both raising our children. In the 1980’s, we were teenagers in Florida collecting football and baseball cards, going to coin shops to find “rare” or different foreign coins, and of course we were listening to music on records (vinyls for those younger than 30) and CDs. We compared how our childhoods were different than our children’s childhoods. For sure, our children have many more options, opportunities, and avenues to the world than we enjoyed. However, we noted that the young people of today do not have the same hobbies, or any hobbies. In fact, the hobby time seems consumed by social media and a world of connectedness that has in many ways made society less connected. This has led to the dramatic fall in many pastimes and the lack of interest in cherished hobbies, like collecting.

Collecting Taught Valuable Life Lessons

These seemingly simple hobbies of collecting brought many deeper lessons, such as learning about sports, learning about the selling of collectibles, grading quality in items, setting personal goals, budgeting, working in teams to share collections, negotiating trades, tracking markets, understanding the interest of buyers and sellers, respecting personal property, and even setting reasonable goals in a collection. By being physical, collected items were tangible and real. These items were not experienced as images in the ether of the Internet. Each item was a physical conquest – however small or mighty it might have been.

What made these hobbies so gratifying was that one could find a hard to locate item or perhaps be the first in one’s social circle with a special coin or rookie card. Of course, being the first on the block with a new record brought instant social status and popularity. Nobody shared records, at least in our neighborhood. You listened to your friend’s music at their house. Music via records brought people together. When friends came over, we often decided who selected which songs to play, via the simple adage, “host gets most, guest gets best.” It cured all jealousy. Everyone was a winner. Although we did not share records, we did share CDs. I guess we recognized the fragility of records and the replaceability of CDs even then.

Today, of course, music is digitized. There are no trips to the music store. No more waiting in lines. You want a special song, just click on iTunes. In many ways, it is wonderful, but how much of your collection do you actively play? In college, the CD years, as I called them, one could easily size up a person’s interest and cultural openness by seeing their CD collection, and we all had CDs prominently on display in our apartments. A wise friend of mine used CD collections as a means for filtering out bad dating candidates. Music defined us. But we were defined by other things, such as the things we amassed and could physically share. Hobbies were part of that space. Today, those past times are dying and leaving a major social void.

Digitization has Implications for Branding

When you ask Alexa to order paper towels, will it send you a branded paper towel, the lowest priced paper towel, an Amazon branded version, the generic with the highest reviews, or perhaps the towels that paid the most for voice search? Will you care? Will the brand promise and recognition matter? I think in many disposable items, it will not. Brands will disappear because the process of searching has been lost. Digital search and acquisition does the work or recognizing and assigning value. We will soon not be involved in what we buy and perhaps why one item (with a brand) is preferred over another (with another brand). In the searching for things, we assign value (tricked by our emotions and confused by our illogical fallacies). Brands have helped us assign value. Often brands are signals for quality and value. Other brands, still, are placeholders, non-descript and hollow. In hobbies, the items collected are often hollow in value. This transformation of the searching process and assignment of value has impacted collecting foreign coins, football cards, and music. The finding process is now easy. Digitization took away the search process, which was work, but fun, and offered human gratification.

Ownership Will be Redefined

With the rise of digitization is the reality that we can all see the 1909-11 T206 Honus Wagner baseball card, the most valuable sports card (which recently sold for over $3.12 million). Here it is.

Seeing an image is enough for many people, curing them of the desire to collect such a card. If it happens in cards, it happens in coins, jewelry, maps, cars, and even clothing. Indeed, there are various companies that let you rent luxury jewelry, clothes, and cars. Why own it, if you really just want to use it for the afternoon? The rise of the sharing economy has deeper implications for how we define ourselves. Gone are the days of defining ourselves by cars. If cars are autobots summoned by a mobile app, do you care if the car is red or blue or made in Japan or Germany? Do you even want to own a car? So many young people do not want to own cars (expect for maybe a Tesla). My point is that the act of traveling has been digitized. The joy of searching for something and parading around in something beautiful has been made easy. Ownership is a dying goal or concept.

Could homes have a similar fate? If the quest is a pretty house with Restoration Hardware approved design, liked by hundreds of friends, does it matter if you rent it or own it? Is the joy in making it or in getting the positive feedback? Maybe you can have Restoration Hardware just redo the place every few months. There would be no need to own the furniture. Decor will be a service and not a possession or asset. Already, many professionals are seeing renting as a more desirable path than home ownership.

Brands and (most) physical items only have value because, as buyers, we assign value to them. Even a car or home has value because we put value on it. We might deduce that it has “economic value,” which is really just the savings of not paying for an alternative. For instance, a home is generally worth something related to what rent would otherwise cost. A car’s value is related to what energy and transportation cost. But value beyond that is highly impacted by brands, and we decide the value of brands as consumers. Digitization brilliantly reduces costs of access and increases access, even for those things that brought us social joy and status. In fact, by making the cost zero (or near zero) and the access high, it has made the value zero, too. That is a problem for things like brands, hobbies, and even ownership. Maybe the NFT market realized that a copy of most anything is simply an exercise in increasing access and reducing value. Why not have millions or billions of copies? You see, a copy is a facsimile. It is not the real thing and not defined by any authenticity claims.

In a time long ago (well not so long along, actually), Professor Walker, collected football cards, foreign coins, and Cuban music. He hopes his children share in some of these passions. At least they all enjoy Cuban music from his collection on a daily basis via iTunes. BTW – Is iTunes a collection?

Professor Walker provides keynote talks, seminars presentations, executive training programs, and executive briefings.

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About Russell Walker, Ph.D.

Professor Russell Walker helps companies develop strategies to manage risk and harness value through analytics and Big Data. He is Associate Teaching Professor at the Foster School of Business, University of Washington. His most recent book, From Big Data to Big Profits: Success with Data and Analytics is published by Oxford University Press (2015), which explores how firms can best monetize Big Data. He is the author of the text Winning with Risk Management (World Scientific Publishing, 2013), which examines the principles and practice of risk management through business case studies.


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Russell Walker helps companies develop strategies to manage risk and harness value through analytics and big data. He has done novel research in data monetization and digital disruption and advises leading firms on these topics. As Director of Experiential Learning in Analytics and Associate Teaching Professor of Marketing and International Business at the Foster School of Business, at the University of Washington, Dr. Walker is an academic thought-leader on analytics. Russell Walker has developed and taught leading executive programs on Big Data and Analytics, Strategic Data-Driven Marketing, Enterprise Risk, Operational Risk, and Global Leadership. Previous to moving to Seattle and the Foster School, Dr. Walker was Clinical Professor at the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University, where he founded and taught many popular courses in analytics and risk management. His is the author of the book From Big Data to Big Profits: Success with Data and Analytics (Oxford University Press, 2015) which examines data monetization strategies and the development of data-centric business models in the new digital economy. He is also the author of the award-winning text Winning with Risk Management (World Scientific Publishing, 2013), which examines the principles and practice of risk management as a competitive advantage. Dr. Walker consults with firms on the topics of Big Data and Analytics, Data Monetization, Risk Management, and Business Strategy. Russell Walker can be reached at: @RussWalker1776

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