A recent survey on 'The French and Subscription Services' carried out by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) in June revealed the increasing enthusiasm among people in France for renting goods and equipment and signing up to subscription services. This trend appears to reflect a more profound change in society in relation to ownership.

Rental and subscription services: It’s all about "just paying for what you want to consume" rather than acquiring things

Interview with Laurence Allard, an Innovation sociologist and senior lecturer at IRCAV-Paris 3/Lille 3 (Institute for research into film and the audio-visual sector). She is also the editor of the culturesexpressives.fr website which, among other things, addresses ways of expressing concepts digitally, mobile technology, and the anthropology of data.

Why are consumption patterns such as rental and subscription-based services becoming increasingly popular?  

The results of the IFOP survey show that there are two distinct socio-demographic profiles among the ‘early adopters’. Firstly, young urban managerial-level people who choose to follow this trend because it represents a combination of ‘freedom’ and ‘enjoyment’. Secondly, there are people who do things this way out of need – they can save money by renting goods or subscribing to services when they want to replace their existing things or try out something new. We can observe this keenness to replace or seek novelty among French people on very low incomes – under €1,200 a month – 50% say they like to replace equipment often, while 40% are keen on novelty for its own sake. So we shouldn’t ignore this less-well-off segment of society, which has through necessity already shifted consumption patterns towards the Internet, especially websites such as [French advertising site] Le Bon Coin. This is the resourceful side of France, representing a resilient economy able to survive a long-lasting crisis. In an ethnographic study on digital consumption in April 2013, I observed how consumption patterns had expanded and become more varied with the use of the Internet, and pointed out the cyclical nature of consumption these days, with people now tending to sell their existing equipment before buying anew.

What people perhaps value most in these new intermediaries, such as Airbnb, Le Bon Coin, and eBay, is the interaction with like-minded people in a peer community, people going through the same financial difficulties and having the same needs.

Which types of goods and services are most suited to rental or subscription services?

Online entertainment products today are perhaps the best example of rental and subscription services. After the written media sector, where 22% of all French people subscribe to a publication, the film and music business make most use of this model, with 10% and 9% respectively of those polled having signed up for these services. The IFOP results reveal that 20% of the under-24 age group interviewed during the survey use legal rental subscription video services. This figure is 17% where the household income is less than €1,200, 14% among the higher socio-professional classes and 17% among the ‘non-working people’ polled. Renting goods and services and the wider subscription services sector business have acted as a sort of lab for experimenting with a new business model based on use of digital entertainment content rather than ownership of a physical item. To sum up this approach we could take a slogan from the entertainment sector – “Just pay for what you want to see” – and extend it to the rental business in general, i.e. “Just pay for what you want to consume”. Today this user experience is symbolised by Netflix, where the flexibility of the subscription terms is a major factor in the business’s popularity. What’s more, the values embodied in the rental and subscription approach are also logically tied in with the basic values of the Internet as a whole.

Is this a worldwide phenomenon, or is it associated more with French or US culture?

Business cultures are both local and global. Environmental imperatives are now impacting the entire planet but for some socio-demographic groups ownership is still an outward and visible sign of social status, and as such this is a very deeply-rooted value. This is still the case in France and also in many emerging countries. In addition, even terms such as renting and hire purchase have a history and significance which differs from French to English. However what is common to people in a large number of countries is a shift in patterns of consumption towards using goods and supporting services and away from actual possession.

So are we moving towards the end of the notion of ownership?

As rental and subscription services grow in popularity this is bound to have consequences for the concept of ownership at a time of tighter economic and environmental conditions. Acquisitiveness and accumulation without any sharing of the goods is starting to be frowned on. Only having possessions which are then passed on is still regarded positively. This approach is perfectly defensible in a cyclical economy where goods are in circulation. In this regard there’s no contradiction between ownership for a purpose – buying something you can pass on to your children, for example – and subscription-based consumption.

What trends do you see going forward?

Subscription-based consumption of online services are driving values in society based on ‘responsible’ consumption following a period of over-consumption, and acquisitiveness is becoming taboo. This is much more than a trend or a fashion. What we’re talking about here is a deliberate choice on the part of society.