Tuesday, October 26, 2010

All that stuff comes in handy

My basement is testimony to the fact that we have lots of stuff, too much stuff. In this recession, however, that may not be a bad thing. Instead of buying more stuff, we can rely on the stuff we already have.

Look at clothing, as Virginia Postrel does in a Wall Street Journal piece.
In 2008, Americans owned an average of 92 items of clothing, not counting underwear, bras and pajamas, according to Cotton Inc.'s Lifestyle Monitor survey, which includes consumers, age 13 to 70. The typical wardrobe contained, among other garments, 16 T-shirts, 12 casual shirts, seven dress shirts, seven pairs of jeans, five pairs of casual slacks, four pairs of dress pants, and two suits—a clothing cornucopia.

Then the economy crashed. Consumers drew down their inventories instead of replacing clothes that wore out or no longer fit. In the 2009 survey, the average wardrobe had shrunk—to a still-abundant 88 items. We may not be shopping like we used to, but we aren't exactly going threadbare. Bad news for customer-hungry retailers, and perhaps for economic recovery, is good news for our standard of living.
If you think you're poor, consider what people had during the Great Depression.
Instead of roughly 90 items, a middle-class worker's wardrobe contained fewer than 15. For the typical white-collar clerk in the San Francisco Bay Area, those garments included three suits, eight shirts (of all types), and one extra pair of pants. A unionized streetcar operator would own a uniform, a suit, six shirts, an extra pair of pants, and a set of overalls. Their wives and children had similarly spare wardrobes. Based on how rarely items were replaced, a 1933 study concluded that this "clothing must have been worn until it was fairly shabby." Cutting a wardrobe like that by four items—from six shirts to two, for instance—would cause real pain. And these were middle-class wage earners with fairly secure jobs.
Larger consumer inventories don't just increase variety, Ms. Postrel writes. They reduce the wear and tear on each individual item, extending its useful life. So doing without new purchases doesn't mean "going without." When you own 11 pairs of shoes—the national average including both sexes, according to a 2009 Kelton Research survey—you're unlikely to wear the soles down so far you need cardboard inserts.

Earlier this year, Booz & Company, the consulting firm, surveyed 2,000 people to learn how they were adjusting their spending in the recession. It confirmed a picture of pervasive retrenchment in consumer spending that spans a broad range of consumer product categories.
But the survey also suggests that increased frugality may have become learned behavior, making many Americans more cautious and discerning consumers. What is more, the study suggests that these behaviors are “sticky,” and unlikely to quickly change as the economy shows signs of improvement. For example, in the next 12 months just 9% of consumers intend to spend at pre-recession levels on household products, 10% on mobile phone service, 11% on health and beauty products, and 18% on apparel, clothing, and shoes. Moreover, nearly two-thirds (64%) of consumers say they’ll shop at a different store with lower prices even if it’s less convenient for them.
Now that I know who has the cheapest gasoline in town, why not continue to go there? There's even a website tracking gas prices in my little town.

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