Mark Dolliver’s Takes: Mixed Blessings

If you worry that the stock market’s recent volatility will scare consumers into cutting their spending, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey might reassure you. For better or worse, relatively few people have much money in the market. Thirty percent said they have more than $25,000 invested in stocks and mutual funds; another 8 percent have $10,000-25,000 invested in this fashion. Forty percent have no money at all invested in the stock market. In any case, few respondents think we’re on the brink of a crash. Asked where they think the market will be a year from now, 3 percent said “much higher” and 43 percent “somewhat higher.” Two percent said “much lower,” and 14 percent said “somewhat lower.” Most of the rest (33 percent) think it’ll stay “about the same.”

Which would you be less reluctant to reveal: your age or your weight? In a poll of adult women conducted for Prevention by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media, 85 percent said they’d rather reveal their age. Ah, but would they tell the truth? In the same poll, 73 percent claimed they’ve never lied about their age. Those who do lie adjust it downward by an average of four years. Maybe they’d lie about their weight if they could get away with it. Fifty-eight percent said they’d “rather be 10 pounds thinner than look 10 years younger.”

Snack marketers should encourage kids to be gregarious, evidently. Researchers at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that young kids who snack in big groups “eat almost a third more than when snacking with a couple of kids.” The same tendency has been observed in adults and even in other animals. “Termed ‘social facilitation,’ the phenomenon stems from the stimuli provided by the sight and sound of others engaged in the same behavior. It overrides the brain’s normal signals of satiety.” Gee, better be careful the next time you’re drinking in a crowded bar.

After years of dressing as if going to play in the sandbox, are adults now more inclined to dress as grownups? A report from The NPD Group assembles some evidence that they are. For women, sales of dresses (had you forgotten they exist?) rose by more than 7 percent last year. To go along with them, sales of sheer stockings—a certifiably grownup article of clothing—grew for the first time in 10 years, by a healthy 6.5 percent. As for men, unit sales of suits rose 6.2 percent. And, significantly, the rise was even steeper among men age 25-34 (up 13.4 percent) and 18-24 (11.6 percent). One might have supposed men in those age cohorts had forever turned their T-shirt-clad backs on something as formal and traditional as the suit. Sales of men’s dress shoes were up 19.3 percent.

So that’s why kids aren’t eager to go out and play. An Experian Simmons study of kids age 6-11 finds that 54 percent have a TV set in their room, while 26 percent have a stereo and 19 percent have a computer. These numbers help to confirm another of the findings: 36 percent of parents with kids this age “admit that their children can significantly influence their purchasing decisions.” (The 64 percent of parents who denied this may be kidding themselves.) Moreover, 25 percent conceded that “it was hard for them to resist their kids’ requests for non-essential items.”

Why do women wear shoes? Not just to save wear and tear on their feet. In a survey conducted for ShoeMall, women age 18-54 were asked whether they use shoes for any of several purposes. Forty-four percent said they use them to be “more refined and dignified.” (Men, of course, are refined and dignified in any case.) Thirty-seven percent use shoes to feel “more powerful and confident,” 32 percent to be “more playful” and 31 percent to be “more feminine and girlish.” Just 20 percent use shoes to be “more sexy.”

“Pricing power,” or the lack thereof, has been a sore point for companies in many categories during the past several years. They must envy the marketers of brand-name prescription drugs, who command higher prices every year. Looking at 200 of the most commonly used brand-name prescription drugs for older adults, an AARP report says their prices rose an average of 6.2 percent last year—nearly double the overall inflation rate. Prices for the generic prescription drugs most used by old folks actually fell, by 2 percent.

It’s bad that many people aren’t saving enough to fund their retirement. To make matters worse, the nest eggs they have accumulated aren’t necessarily sacrosanct. A Wall Street Journal Online/Harris Interactive Personal Finance Poll asked people who have been planning for retirement whether they’d ever “tapped into” their retirement savings. And, sure enough, there’s been a lot of tapping: 31 percent of respondents said they have done this. Eight percent drew on their retirement savings after losing their jobs, and 7 percent did so to cover medical/health-related expenses. Five percent said they used such funds to make a down payment on a home. The travel industry should give a prize to the 2 percent who dipped into their retirement money to fund a vacation. As for the 2 percent who used such funds to cover wedding expenses, let’s hope the marriage lasted.

Notwithstanding the lackluster job they do of saving for retirement, most Americans expect to live to an old age. The chart below excerpts findings of a survey by The New York Times and CBS News. If the respondents do live so long, they should give healthcare some of the credit. Among those who have some sort of healthcare coverage (as nine in 10 of them do), 87 percent said it gives them “access to good medical care at an affordable cost.” Still, when questioned in different terms on the subject, 26 percent of all respondents said they’re “very concerned” and 38 percent “somewhat concerned” about being unable to pay for their current healthcare costs.