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 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Power of the Post-Recession Consumer

The reference to “kindness” is not a typo. Between 2005 and 2009, U.S. consumers expressed a nearly fourfold increase in their preference for companies, brands, and products that show kindness in both their operations and their encounters with customers. This desire for companies to be more empathetic toward consumers is the biggest shift in any attitude that we have ever seen during the BAV survey’s two-decade history.

The BAV data told us that at the grass roots, people were well ahead of the pundits, corporations, and political leaders. Some of the most important economic statistics supporting this trend come from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reports on personal savings. The reports show that ordinary Americans began raising their deposits in savings accounts and other secure investments a full two years before the start of the recession. Even as unemployment surged past 10 percent, U.S. consumers socked away more money every month. By the middle of 2009, people were saving about 7 percent of their disposable income — a figure that hadn’t been seen since 1995. We also know that people cut back on spending many months before the recession began. In fact, Americans reduced consumption so sharply that in the middle of 2008, it dropped below their disposable income and just kept falling. This reversal of earlier trends in saving and spending continued throughout all of 2009. Without being scolded, lectured, or led from above, U.S. consumers had quietly changed their behavior.

Regardless of companies’ size or their target market, they must understand the significance of the Spend Shift to compete in the post-recession economy. From the scores of interviews we conducted and thousands of data points we accumulated, we can identify a wide array of ways that the shift in attitudes, values, expectations, and behaviors will change the way we buy, sell, and live. We have distilled our findings into four defining principles that together offer a comprehensive look at the origins and impacts of the Spend Shift.

1. United by Change

The Spend Shift is a far-reaching and inclusive phenomenon that can’t be defined by any particular demographic. According to our data, 55 percent of all Americans are part of this movement; in addition, about one-quarter of the U.S. adult population embraces many of the Spend Shift attitudes and characteristics (we call them Fast Followers). Although the word values tends to polarize U.S. citizens, the Spend Shift is blind to geography, education, age, and income.

Spend Shifters can be found across the nation: 17 percent are in the Northeast, 23 percent are in the Midwest, 36 percent are in the South, and 24 percent are in the West. Although we’ll limit our discussion to what’s happening in the U.S., it is worth noting that the BAV data shows that the Spend Shift is a global trend. For example, we found that 53 percent of French consumers are Spend Shifters, as are 45 percent of German and Italian consumers.

Members of the movement have varying education backgrounds: 23 percent have a high school diploma, 21 percent have a college degree, and 11 percent have completed postgraduate studies. Spend Shifters also represent diverse income brackets; for example, 28 percent earn less than US$40,000 a year, but 18 percent earn between $75,000 and $100,000. They represent Republicans, Democrats, and Independents (28, 31, and 41 percent, respectively). Millennials (the generation born between 1980 and 1995) lead the movement, with 58 percent of 22- to 28-year-olds participating, yet nearly half of all seniors belong, too (including 55 percent of adults age 68 and above).

What unites all these Spend Shifters is a common sense of optimism and newfound purpose. As the shock of economic loss wears off for many people, they are redefining what it means to be successful and happy. They are living with less and yet feeling greater satisfaction. Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed reported they are happier with a more back-to-basics lifestyle. Eighty-eight percent reported they buy less-expensive brands than they used to.

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