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What Essential Workers Buy to Stay Connected

June 30, 2021 Jim Warner
An essential worker who's wearing red jacket, cycling helmet, protective face mask and surgical gloves, during Covid-19 pandemic delivers package to masked woman.

This past year has demonstrated the power and impact technology and essential workers play in our ability to stay connected, and all of the wonderful complications that come with adapting to dramatic change. Think about it—many of us are working from home, seeing our co-workers on a computer screen, but have not seen them in-person for months. You can almost fool yourself that you’ve spent the day with a teammate or work friend. When logging off your computer, your commute is over before it really started. Whether we realize it or not, this physical isolation is a stressor that quietly speaks to our need to be a part of a community. This need motivates our efforts to make the virtual tangible.  

That drive to stay connected to one another may include some retail therapy, but not just the random impulse buying or curbside grocery purchase. This time last year e-commerce site Etsy (known for its homemade craft sellers) sold 12 million face masks (across 60,000 sellers) on its website in a single month.

Times like these challenge us to connect in the ways we can, and it also shapes our choices. There may not be a more concrete example of this need to find solidarity than essential workers.

Retail Therapy for Essential Workers

The phrase (essential workers) rings out with a mix of respect and resolve. Essential workers are doing the work that we cannot do. Often they carry on without much more than our ‘thank you’ behind a car window or a cracked door.

Yet, in a job that offers stresses perpetually out of their control, they carry on doing the work that is, well, essential.

So when we think about how essential workers connect, it’s interesting to see how they find their point of reference. In research conducted by marketing professors Dr. Katina Kulow (UofL), Dr. Kara Bently (Chapman University), and Dr. Priyali Rajagopal (UNTX), essential workers respond strongly to personalized sellers from such websites as Etsy when compared to faceless sellers like Amazon.

Their reason? “Personalized sellers will also evoke greater social connection and solidarity because they may be viewed as individuals who are also working (like essential workers) during the pandemic, in order to provide products that are helpful for essential workers.”

Personal Connection Made Real

The research discusses how essential workers are willing to purchase items such as masks from Etsy sellers because it feels personal. Knowing hands worked to sew this mask together is much easier to relate to than some factory/assembly line for these buyers. It’s similar to why some people shop at a farmer’s market versus a supermarket. Sometimes knowing who you are buying is from worth something more than the actual item you’re buying.

Retail therapy may be one of the last places we can retreat to, and as a result, how essential workers seek to connect is a reflection of who we all are in this strange new world. If we truly are all in this together, then it’ll be up to us to understand how our choices (even purchasing power) help maintain our need for the human touch.

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