It's a question that has preoccupied marketers ever since the economy went haywire: Will people revert to their free-spending ways once the economy recovers, or has their behavior been permanently transformed?
Some observers insist that people's pre-recession acquisitiveness was rooted in basic human impulses and will largely reassert itself. Others say the long spending spree was an aberration and that human nature doesn't fate us to be obsessive shoppers. A report released late last month by Context-Based Research Group and ad agency Carton Donofrio Partners makes the case that the downturn has indeed wrought a lasting shift in consumers' thinking and not just a transitory change in their bank balances.
Titled "Coming of Age in the Great Recession," the report draws on quantitative survey work fielded last fall as a follow-up to ethnographic research conducted in the aftermath of autumn 2008's financial meltdown. So far, attitudinal changes noted in the earlier study (issued under the title "Grounding the American Dream") have not gone away. Most broadly, the new report says 83 percent of respondents subscribed to the statement, "I have made permanent changes to how I spend and save." Moreover, the survey finds them saying good riddance to their old understanding of the "American Dream" and the buying it entailed: 78 percent endorsed the statement, "The American Dream started as 'the land of opportunity' but became merely the land of opportunity to buy."
SEEING BENEFIT IN THE DOWNTURN
And they haven't necessarily been dragged kicking and screaming to this new consciousness. Rather, a significant number of respondents sound a note of relief that the downturn has rescued them from an unsatisfying cycle of getting and spending. Forty-three percent agreed with the statement, "I feel that my life has been positively affected by the economic changes." That, as much as anything, gives reason to think the changes in behavior will persist even after the economy has recovered.
And it's noteworthy that such thinking isn't confined to people whose finances have been slammed by the recession. "What was interesting to my colleagues and me was that the survey showed people who weren't impacted -- i.e., hadn't experienced job loss, etc. -- were acting as if they were directly affected," says Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist and co-founder of Context-Based Research Group, which brings the discipline of "consumer anthropologists" to the study of consumer behavior.
"Those who were involuntary thrown into dire situations changed quickly, but out of necessity," says Blinkoff. "I'd say 50 percent of the change with this group was voluntary, since the trigger that activated their change wasn't intentional, but the subsequent behavior modifications were by choice. For those who weren't directly impacted, the change is 100 percent voluntary. Once they accepted what was happening to friends and family members, they altered their lifestyle. The great recession prompted us to examine how we live our lives."
BUYING AND SELF-IMAGE
That element of self-awareness is reflected in one of the survey's findings. Seventy-six percent of the respondents agreed that they've "come to a deeper understanding of how my buying behavior shapes my self-image." And this "deeper understanding" has expressed itself partly in a lower level of expenditure, as 88 percent said they've "taken steps to spend less this year."
It's not just a matter of spending less, though. The report also indicates people are thinking in a different way about the outlays they continue to make. In that regard, a landslide 93 percent agreed, "I have become more strategic in how I buy things, thinking more about how they fit into my life." Note the latter phrase there, about how purchases "fit into my life." This is plainly more than a matter of getting the most bang for one's buck in a time of straitened resources.
But do we tend to think everyone else was running around overspending in the bad old days -- encouraged by overeager lenders -- while we ourselves were behaving sensibly? Blinkoff thinks not. "The average person is taking part of the blame," he says. "Without a doubt there was a societal problem with the banks and mortgage companies, but people are taking personal responsibility. We're waking up and wondering why we need two refrigerators."
NOT GIVING UP 'TREATS'
That's not to say consumers feel they're now enduring Spartan lives of self-denial: 90 percent agreed that "Regardless of how I spend and save, I still look for ways to give myself and others small treats along the way." Says Blinkoff, "Cutting back didn't have to mean cutting out fun and not enjoying your life. Throughout our research we saw that people were finding ways to experience joy despite the recession. Now that the ice is breaking, we're seeing people shop a bit more, and we expect this trend to continue as the economy gains strength." It won't be a return to the heedless, credit-funded shopping of the pre-recession days, though. "Consumers will spend a little more and treat themselves, but with more thoughtful purchases -- attainable luxuries as opposed to extreme luxuries, those items grounded in peoples' values," he says.
In this environment, how will consumers react to advertising for things they know they don't need? "I don't think they'll readily be pulling out their wallets," Blinkoff remarks. "If consumers see a product they don't need, they aren't going to make the purchase. For advertisers, this means less differentiating on brand alone and focusing on product attributes. The Oxo line of kitchen gadgets seems to be a brand that resonates with the newly grounded consumer. Consumers are willing to purchase cooking tools that will help them with a hobby and ultimately help provide a shared experience of a meal with family and friends. That purchase has a purpose, a deeper meaning."
The emphasis on deriving satisfaction from time spent with family and friends (as opposed to time spend at the mall) is part of what the report refers to as an effort "to maintain a healthy balance between our consumer and non-consumer sense of selves." "Our research shows a significant percentage of respondents are committed to spending more time with friends and family," says Blinkoff. And, when asked specifically whether this might be an instance of people giving a pollster the socially acceptable response, he insists that's not what's going on here. "Our findings indicate that this is more than a knee-jerk reaction or the 'correct' answer," he says. "For example, Super Bowl XLIV was the most-watched television program of all time. In my opinion, that's proof people are getting together. It's less about a football game and more about time with friends and family."
FROM A 'ME' TO A 'WE' ECONOMY
Of course, a pullback from conspicuous consumption doesn't mean an end to the age-old practice of "keeping up with the Joneses." Rather, the display of one's status has evolved in a way Blinkoff sees as durable. "We're seeing people utilize social currency and a relational economy," he says. "We are moving from a 'me' to a 'we' economy. It's not about transactions but rather what you can do for yourself and others."
As a tangible example, he points to Americans' response to the Haiti earthquake. "I think the overwhelming response to this tragedy connects to the fact people are trying to give more of themselves," he says. "Obviously we aren't going to stop buying stuff completely, but we're moving away from identifying ourselves with top-of-the-line automobiles and $3,000 handbags."