The Absent ‘Big Thing,’ Gluttonous Singles, Etc.

If the holiday’s retail sales fail to meet expectations, don’t blame consumers. They seem willing to spend. But researchers are wondering whether people will find products that trigger their shopping impulses. In a poll fielded in early November by WSL Strategic Marketing, just 26 percent of shoppers said they’re finding “new and interesting things to buy” as holiday gifts. According to this report, “The greatest risk is that there is no one big thing on everyone’s list.” Along the same lines, an earlier report by The NPD Group offered the haunting lament, “Where are the Furbies of yesteryear?” (Try not to be distracted by the sound of François Villon spinning in his grave.) With even popular products widely available at discount prices, it says, consumers are less apt to get into a shopping fever. A report from Ipsos-Insight offers a more optimistic view of the season, at least where consumer electronics are concerned. It detects a big rise in inclination to consider expensive items like high-definition television sets and home-theater systems.

Is it relaxing to be at home with the family? So says the stereotype that depicts us coming in from the cold, cruel outside world and thawing out in the warm embrace of spouse and offspring. It’s a nice picture, but an American Express survey of affluent consumers detects a telltale sign that it’s not quite accurate. Americans who feel stress “nearly every day” report spending an average of 45 hours per week with their families. Those who feel just “occasional” stress spend an average of 36 hours a week with their families. Evidently there’s something relaxing in having the extra nine family-free hours.

Hearing the news about housing starts, you might think half the homes in America were built in the past few years. They weren’t. Despite robust rates of construction, a Census report puts the proportion of housing units built between 1995 and March 2000 at a modest 9.7 percent. By contrast, 15 percent of current housing stock was built before 1940. Householders age 25-34 were more likely to report living in post-1995 homes than in pre-1940 units (14.5 percent vs. 13.6 percent). In all other age cohorts, people are more likely to inhabit old homes than new ones.

Whatever its effect on society, the rise in one-person households is a boon for food marketers. According to research by Mintel, single-person households spend $63 on groceries in a typical week, while households with four or more people spend an average of $30 or less per person. The gap stems in part from the presence of children in multi-person households. Still, the magnitude of the gap suggests that solo householders are indulging themselves more in their grocery selections. The same report touches on the question of whether men share the grocery-shopping duties in male-plus-female households. Eleven percent of the men claim they do; just 6 percent of the women say it’s so.

In the old joke, the ex-employee says, “I left my job for reasons of health: They were sick of me.” In real life, workers often feel too sick to keep their noses to the grindstone. In a study described in The Journal of the American Medical Association, 13 percent of workers “experienced a loss in productive time” due to feeling unwell within the two-week period covered by the research. Headache was the most common culprit (cited by 5.4 percent of all those surveyed), followed by back pain (3.2 percent), arthritis pain (2 percent) and other musculoskeletal pain (2 percent). Three-fourths of the lost productivity took the form of “reduced performance” rather than absence from work.

If the food police have their way, we may someday be reduced to buying our snacks in furtive, back-alley transactions. As such, you can read some irony into the fact that a brand of healthy chips, Terra, has invoked such a scene in its advertising. Even healthy vegetables like yuca and taro can benefit from an aura of forbidden fruit, apparently. Blue Elephant of New York created the ad.

We likely won’t hear pundits decrying a “citrus divide” in the U.S. Nonetheless, there are surprisingly large disparities along ethnic and racial lines in the consumption of oranges, of all things. According to a report from the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, Hispanics consumed 111.7 pounds of oranges per capita in 2001, significantly more than the amount consumed by blacks (95 pounds) or whites (80.5 pounds). (The figures combine fresh oranges and orange juice.) There was also an orange gender gap, with male consumers going through 93.5 pounds per capita and female consumers ingesting 81.1 pounds. Per capita consumption was particularly high among males age 12-19 (112.1 pounds) and low among females age 20-39 (75.5 pounds).

Marketers fall all over themselves to get a share of young adults’ spending, while they often seem indifferent to the preferences of not-so-young adults. But where, you might ask, do young adults get the money they spend? According to a study by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, they get a good chunk of it from their parents—i.e., those boring older adults. Between ages 18 and 34—a phase of life the report refers to as “adultolescence”—people receive an average of $38,000 from their parents. And as if that weren’t enough, the young folks also receive “two years’ worth of full-time, 40-hour-a-week labor from their parents.” Just think how it would alter the distribution of discretionary spending if the parents charged for all this labor! As you’d expect, the amount of financial assistance young adults get from mom and dad is highest at the young end of the 18-34 spectrum.