Sales of snazzy goodies like nail polish, handbags, wine and cheesecake are soaring.
Meanwhile, ugly stepsister products like fertilizer, shoe polish and vacuum cleaner bags languish on store shelves.
Retail sales have remained relatively flat this year. But how people choose to spend their money is shifting from a fear-based bunker mentality to one that balances basic needs with small luxuries and indulgences. Here's why and the new tunes that shoppers are singing:
"The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" - REM
The shock of the recession forced consumers of all economic classes to carefully consider their shopping and buying patterns. For many it was the first time they had stopped to wonder about the why's behind their buys.
As consumers have become increasingly resigned to a diminished economic future they're again examining their shopping strategies. This time for the long run. Ever adaptive, consumers are analyzing where they get maximum pleasure for their dollars and are creating new personal consumption rules. If lacquered nails are more satisfying than a weekly vacuuming schedule than so be it.
Janice just bought a $100 bottle of perfume. "I can use it every day and it'll still last a year. That's what I call value. I was going to ask for it for Christmas but Saks was giving away a free mini bottle with purchase so I went ahead and bought it for myself." Janice is one of many, including men, who are boosting sales of some cosmetics and personal grooming products to record highs.
"My Way" - Frank Sinatra
In our increasingly individualistic society, consumers have fewer social rules and many care less about the unspoken rules that do exist. How important is it, they wonder, that, for example, cars be clean and yards be green? For others there just isn't either the time or the mental bandwidth to care as much as they might have a few years ago.
"In this economy I can live with a little less perfection," says Howard, who no longer spends a good chunk of every weekend washing and waxing his car and tending to his yard as he did two years ago. "Besides, my car is older now." Howard's not alone. Sales of car wax and weed killer have taken a nose dive.
The flip side of individualism is an emerging sense of isolation. This has fueled cravings to feel seen by others and part of something. Many, especially our younger consumers, feel seen thorough expressive wardrobes. Which is a partial explanation for the surge in sales of shoes, handbags and jewelry.
"Slide Away" - Oasis
Indulgences can feel like an oasis in a roiling sea of uncertainty. Treats relieve stress. And it feels more stressful than ever for nearly everybody.
"I feel good every time I look at this purse. I mean look at it, it's so shiny and red. I'm so happy that I gave in and bought this, I've enjoyed it so much. Probably more than I would have a few years ago when I bought stuff like this more often," said Carrie.
For many, a touch of regulated self-pampering feels more necessary than ever.
"You can't believe how much harder I'm working now than I was three years ago. I used to get home by 6:00 every single night. Now it's sometimes 8:00, sometimes I work on Sundays after church. I feel lucky to have my job, I'm not complaining. We've started going to our anniversary restaurant once a month now. We need it. It's like a mini vacation."
"Irresistible You" - Bobby Darin
The Achilles heel of today's more resolute American consumer is a bargain. Shoppers can become so overly focused on what they're saving that they lose sight of what they're spending. In some cases they even lose sight of what they're buying and make ultimately unsatisfying purchases.
Clever marketers are prying open purses and wallets with bargain-based promotions like flash sales and deal-a-day programs, and by limiting the availability of products. Earlier this month shoppers stampeded Target and even crashed their website for their discounted line of Missoni clothing and housewares.
With limited budgets and a lack of credit, consumers make room for these splurges by forgoing decidedly unsexy purchases like socks. It seems the lowly tube sock doesn't stand a chance against the thrill of scoring a coveted once-in-a-lifetime Missoni bicycle. Maybe darning eggs be this year's hot stocking stuffer.
SymphonyIRI research as reported in, "In Time of Scrimping, Fun Stuff is Selling" New York Times, September 24, 2011
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