What’s Happened to the American Dream?

The Downturn Generation is changing behaviors to weather the storm.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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Experts have made so many prognostications about the recession’s duration. Some predict the recession will end during the third quarter of this year, others claim a rebound won’t begin until the end of 2010, and some naysayers claim it will never end.

Because the current recession differs from past recessions in depth and scope, the American consumer is questioning the fundamental assumptions of the American dream -- characterized by buying a house that rises in value, holding a job with security, building savings, easy availability of credit when needed and a better future for the next generation.

CPG innovators can inspire the Downturn Generation by providing promotion strategies that match their desires, speaking to them through online sources, and realizing that a product that is good enough is really good enough. These strategies can help brace us for the new conservative consumer.”

– Thom Blischok

A new niche of consumers identified as the “Downturn Generation” has been created by the current recession and is adopting practices similar to Depression-era shoppers in order to weather the recession and keep a close eye on spending long after the recession ends, according to Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. (IRI).

IRI’s latest Point of View study highlights how shoppers are changing behaviors to adapt to the unstable economy, and it uncovers the new habits they intend to continue even if the economy improves. The report reveals permanently changed approaches toward important rituals, including diet, self-care and home maintenance. It classifies three emerging categories of shoppers:

  • Optimists, who believe “things will get better during the next 12 months.” They spend wisely, cut back selectively and make sacrifices as a last resort.
  • Maintainers, who agree that “the economy won’t get worse, but it won’t get better either.” They also spend wisely, but are more aggressive about making cutbacks.
  • Pessimists, who identify with the direst predictions, believe “if you think times are hard now, next year will be worse.” These folks cut back wherever possible and hunt tirelessly to find deals.

Optimists, maintainers and pessimists are each weathering the recession in unique ways, but all have made obvious behavioral and attitudinal changes and many admit they intend to prolong the use of their new methods,” says IRI Consulting and Innovation President Thom Blischok. “We believe the Downturn Generation will continue their current behavior patterns until they have regained confidence in the U.S. economy. Interestingly, shoppers looked for a return of stability as a signal that the economy is pulling out of the recession -- in particular, stability across gas, food and energy prices, as well as home values.”

Nearly 64 percent of surveyed shoppers characterize their financial condition as a little or a lot worse off than last year; approximately 30 percent believe their finances will be a little or a lot better one year from now; 70 percent note they have less savings than before, and 71 percent agree they have less total wealth.

“Financial pressures are causing shoppers to give up favorite brands, buy smaller quantities of preferred items or postpone non-essential purchases for entertainment in order to save money for their most important needs,” adds Blischok. “Additionally, 30-47 percent of consumers are buying less-healthy products and fewer fresh produce and organic items. This is a fundamental shift from the trends we noted before the economic downturn.”

Just over half work to make ends meet by trying new brands priced below the brands they’ve purchased in the past; 39 percent are giving up some of their favorite brands entirely; and more than 51 percent have redefined “essential.” More than 44 percent seek out and buy store brands as part of a money-saving strategy, and 46 percent buy more private label or store brands than in the past.

Treats have not disappeared from the menu, however. Just fewer than 54 percent look for affordable indulgences, and 44 percent still buy their favorite treats but in smaller quantities. Only 16 percent still splurge on premium or gourmet products on a regular basis.

Spending on “good-for-you” food products is down, and 30 percent buy fewer healthy products because they are more expensive. Similarly, 30 percent purchase less fresh produce, and 47 percent buy fewer organic products.

Packaging preferences are evolving as well, with 58 percent buying fewer products packaged in individual servings, because they are more expensive per serving than full-sized packages. Shoppers also are changing how they prepare meals. More than 56 percent buy fewer prepared meals at grocery stores, while just over 53 percent cook more from scratch or include fewer convenience foods to save money.

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