Trends and Trajectories
The recession is exerting a broad influence on consumer trends and attitudes, propelling some trends forward while slowing, halting, and even reversing others. Here we see a snapshot of the current impact of the recession on trends, relative to one another.
Drawing on our more than 20 years of experience in consumer trend forecasting and analysis, we’ve projected the likely impacts of the current recession on long-term consumer behavior. Our forecasting for this article is based on an analysis of consumer behavior and spending statistics, by sector, in previous recessions (perhaps the best window on customer motives and priorities) and current consumer trend data. We commission consumer surveys and conduct secondary analysis on a range of data sets, and build formal econometric models using linear regression and other statistical techniques. Given our disparate data sources and the complexity of the trends, we rely heavily on qualitative methods in making consumer behavior projections; these include observational research, focus groups, and attitudinal studies looking at product categories and markets.
Using all these methods, we can see how recessions accelerate or decelerate trends already under way, and we can predict their trajectories. For example, in order to forecast the green consumerism trend, we combined our focus group research on attitudes in areas including green consumerism, discretionary thrift, and desire for simplicity with quantitative studies illustrating the decline and rebound of consumer environmental concern in previous recessions.
The financial crisis has put a spotlight on corporate governance, in particular the malfeasance of some executives and the complicity of their companies’ boards. Misbehavior that boards might get away with in good times arouses the ire of consumers and regulators when the economy goes south, as the lynch-mob response to executive bonuses at AIG suggests. Excessive executive pay has long irritated the public, but the recession has prompted ordinary Americans to flood Capitol Hill with phone calls and e-mails and even to make death threats to some high-profile executives.
Like the simplicity trend, the focus on the boardroom has been building for years, spurred by notorious governance failures at companies like Enron and WorldCom early in the decade. The huge, taxpayer-funded bailouts of badly managed businesses will accelerate this trend, with two important effects: Government intervention will intensify, and the consumer backlash against companies with unethical or ineffective governance will worsen. The growing interest in the boardroom builds on an older instinct, the public’s well-established reflex to punish companies for unethical labor or customer practices is potent (as Nike and Nestlé learned the hard way).
This trend should accelerate through the recession but will most likely lose velocity over the long term. In recessions people seek to punish the perceived sources of their dire circumstances; in good times disciplining bad business has a lower priority.
Some consumers have no choice but to be thrifty. Increasingly, though, many affluent consumers are economizing as well, even though they don’t always have to. This is a relatively new trend, having emerged in the final three years or so of the prerecession boom. Our research among more affluent consumers has revealed mounting dissatisfaction with excessive consumption. Many desire a more wholesome and less wasteful life. They’re recycling more, buying used goods, and imbuing their children with traditional values—behaviors that dovetail with the growing demand for simplicity and a solid, though currently slowing, interest in green consumerism.
Initially, many of these newly frugal consumers were reluctant to admit their attraction to thriftiness, concerned that others might see them as dull and austere. But the recession has made discretionary thrift acceptable—even fashionable. Just as victory gardens became trendy among the well-off during World War II, growing vegetables at home now seems to be catching on among the affluent. To take another example, the once moribund
Recoveries typically unleash pent-up demand, and we expect that people will celebrate this one by buying a few indulgences and replacing their aging durables. But, as President Barack Obama observed on his way to the G-20 summit in March 2009, even the famously gluttonous
In the prerecession boom, consumers became agile—and fickle—shoppers. They could instantly find a profusion of brands or products to meet their needs but would just as quickly abandon any choices that somehow fell short. They have brought this increasingly erratic loyalty into the recession, as Starbucks discovered when regular customers, fatigued by $4 coffees, began defecting to cheaper, good-enough competitors like Dunkin’ Donuts. The instantaneous spread of word-of-mouth through online social media has only accelerated the trend.
Technology- and social-network-enabled shopping strategies will allow this trend to pick up steam well into the recovery and beyond. Exactly what consumers buy may change, but their facility in navigating the options will prove durable—as will their readiness to shift allegiances.
Environmentalism is by now deeply rooted in the consumer mind-set and public-policy arena, although consumers and politicians express widely varying degrees of engagement. Consumers have increasingly embraced green products and services over the past decade; they will often pay a premium for the chance to do good and, in many cases, be seen doing good. Green offerings may struggle in recessions as consumers bypass expensive ecoproducts or trade down to cheaper alternatives: Toyota Priuses, once hard to get, are gathering dust on lots.
Our research suggests that green consumerism has slowed in this recession, though it hasn’t stalled. Consumers may be cutting back on pricey displays of their green credentials (known as “badging”), such as buying premium green products and hybrid cars, but they’re ramping up cheap and discreet methods of reducing waste—switching off lights, recycling more, and buying less. This form of green consumerism is reinforced by the burgeoning demand for simplicity, the growing appeal of discretionary thrift, and ever-more-potent social norms against extravagant consumption.
We expect green consumerism to recover and accelerate postrecession in both its forms—waste-reduction and badging—as consumers regain confidence and the disposable income to fully express their growing concern about climate change and the environment.
Public respect for institutions and authority—particularly government and business—has been declining for decades, fed by consumers’ growing confidence in their own ability to find information and tap family and social networks in order to make smart choices. The decline of deference is also driven by mounting skepticism about the quality of information provided by traditional sources of authority such as businesspeople, economists, doctors, and the clergy.
Shallow recessions typically accelerate this trend as consumers blame institutions for their woes. In deep downturns, such as the Great Depression, the reverse effect can occur: Though people understand that business and government—through greed and lax oversight—got them into dire straits, they also grasp that only these institutions can get them out, and they begin to look to them for rescue and guidance. The
In this recession, we anticipate a similar short-term recovery of trust in authority as governments intercede to regulate business, stabilize markets, create jobs, and save homes. Over the long term, the decline of deference will resume its trajectory as consumers become ever savvier information gatherers and decision makers, and the traditional sources of guidance inevitably fail to meet their expectations.
Fair-trade products, locally sourced produce, and eggs laid by cage-free hens are often expensive compared with traditional alternatives. What’s more, ethical consumption, although it intersects with green consumption, is less embedded in the consumer culture and less convincingly linked with self-interest. Like most altruistic spending, ethical consumerism will take a backseat in this recession. Witness the double-digit declines over the past year in charitable donations to organizations such as the American Red Cross. When people are focused on feeding their own kids and keeping a roof over their heads, concern about children in other parts of the world, or about animal welfare, drops on the list of priorities.
In the recovery, we expect this trend to rebound only slowly. As consumer confidence returns, people will first attend to buying the things that they have gone without. Only then will they return to prerecession levels of altruistic spending.
The desire to accumulate experiences in addition to material possessions, especially leisure and extreme experiences, gained footing before this recession. Some experiences—those that are relatively cheap and connect people to nature and wholesome thrift—will continue to flourish. However, exotic experiences that are expensive, frivolous, risky, or environmentally destructive—such as driving a race car or even excessive recreational air travel—are suffering from a recession-driven mood of seriousness and responsibility. Though this trend is relatively new, we use evidence from past recessions to map its trajectory. Global long-haul tourism arrivals, for example, fell by 9% during the early 1990s recession, while short-haul arrivals actually increased.
Part of the appeal of extreme experiences, our consumer research shows, is that people feel that the experience differentiates them. But conspicuous consumption is now out of favor and, as the simplicity and discretionary thrift trends suggest, is unlikely to rebound soon.
The economy is unpredictable, and consumers are fickle. Nonetheless, we are confident that the trend trajectories we describe here will bear out—with plain implications for marketers. In particular, we believe that the cohort of consumers coming of age in this recession will, like their great-grandparents who lived through the Great Depression, carry the attitudes and behaviors they learn now throughout their lives. Some consumers may return to boom-time consumption patterns in the coming decades, but millions of people under age 35 entering this recession may well remain simplicity-seeking, thrifty, green yet mercurial consumers who will hold businesses to very high standards. Companies would be wise to understand what these consumers want and be prepared to deliver it.