Seeing the Upside of Trading Down

In a tough economy, one hears a lot about consumers “trading down.” You may envision these people sobbing quietly as they reach past their regular brands for cheaper alternatives. But a report issued last month by the Boston Consulting Group finds the reality is quite different.

In fact, many Americans experience positive (and self-congratulatory) feelings when trading down. Asked how they feel when trading down, 72 percent said “practical,” 62 percent “knowledgeable,” 51 percent “smart, clever,” 44 percent “happy,” 43 percent “frugal” and 38 percent “better about myself.” Few said it makes them feel “cheap” (11 percent) or “embarrassed” (4 percent). Just 2 percent said they feel “upset” when trading down. In this global poll, fielded in late 2007 and early 2008, the “upset” figure was slightly higher in Europe (7 percent) and Japan (6 percent).

Given a menu of choices and asked to cite the ones that motivate them to trade down, 62 percent of U.S. respondents said they “enjoy the feeling of saving a little money.” Even more, 66 percent, subscribed to the statement, “I save here to spend a bit more there.” Thus, trading down can be as much a matter of self-indulgence as of self-denial. And it’s not as if people necessarily think they’re giving something up when they trade down: 58 percent agreed there are “no meaningful differences between products.”

The polling also sought to identify the categories in which Americans are most inclined to trade down. Atop the standings in this regard: postal/shipping services, canned foods, mobile-phone contracts and services, household cleaners and paper products.