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What today’s reccession-panicked customers can now live without . . . and what they can’t.

This month’s STORES magazine publishes new survey research from BIGresearch on what consumers say they will never give up no matter what and what they can easily live without. The research surveyed 4,100 consumers across several income groups.

If you’re in any kind of consumer business or thinking of starting one, you should be filing away the results.

Money quote:

With American consumers struggling to pay bills, avoid foreclosure on their homes and hold on to their jobs, spending priorities have shifted toward more basic items and services. Shoppers appear willing to do without a lot of the stuff they regarded as “must-haves” as little as a year ago. Having a monthly facial — a treatment many women once considered essential — is a luxury they’re willing to forgo. On the other hand, expect long lines at the local fast food restaurant as customers who traded up a few years back get reacquainted with quick service and drive throughs.

Top ten “expendables” and “untouchables” after the break.

The top ten untouchables, things survey respondents said they would not sacrifice, are:

  • Internet service (81% of respondents)
  • Cell phone service (64%)
  • Cable/satellite (61%) (What’d I say, eh?)
  • Discount apparel (43%) (No-brainer, this one — what’s the substitute, nudity?)
  • Hair cut/color (40%)
  • Fast food restaurant (37%)
  • Casual sit-down restaurant (31%)
  • Charitable contribution (32%) (Huh? Must be church-goers.)
  • Vacation (30%)
  • Fast-casual restaurant (26%)

    The Internet numbers — the first time they’ve taken first place in this survey — mean that Internet-based businesses are the best bet in this downturn.

    And here are the top ten “expendables”:

  • Luxury handbags (92% of respondents said they could do without luxury handbags — of course, considering that probably half the respondents are guys . . .)
  • Satellite radio (91%)
  • Specialty apparel (91%)
  • Maid service (91%)
  • Facial (90%) (Two years ago, this was in the “must-have” category)
  • Fine dining (89%)
  • Manicure/pedicure (88%)
  • Upgraded cell phone (88%) (Which is why Motorola is in trouble)
  • Club/social membership (87%)

    BTW, organic foods clocks in at 85% of respondents saying it’s expendable.

    The restaurant numbers are particularly sobering. Today’s New York Times has a lengthy article on how the hoity-toity, we’re-too-good-to-serve-the-likes-of-you restaurants in New York, like Mario Battali’s, are doing everything they can to get customers in the door. You’re actually welcome there even if you’re not Brad Pitt or John Thain.

    And, in the “what do you expect?” department, the survey confirmed what all of us already know:

    What stands out in the research is the breadth of items and services considered expendable by consumers. Respondents were asked to consider whether they could or could not live without 32 different things. Twenty-three of those items were considered expendable by at least 75 percent of those surveyed. Additionally, 64 percent of the survey participants indicated that they had already cut back on many of the items listed, including gym memberships, casual dining and magazine subscriptions; another 5 percent planned to begin cutting back shortly.

    Since I do quite a bit of work in the film business, over half of respondents consider movies expendable. However, consumer behavior in the last few months, particularly this month, has not borne this out. Just because a consumer says they’re willing to cut back, doesn’t mean they will. I’ve been cutting back on high-calorie foods for several decades. Doesn’t mean I’ve actually done it.

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