Counting Close Friends, Downscale Carbs, Etc.

Oh, they ain’t got a barrel of money, but lower-income Americans have more close friends than their well-heeled compatriots. In a Gallup poll, adults were asked how many close friends they have. The responses averaged out to 8.6, down from 9.9 in 1990 and from 9.5 in 2001. For people with yearly household income under $30,000, the number of close friends averaged 9.6, vs. 8.0 for those making $30,000-49,999, 8.2 for the $50,000-74,999 cohort and 7.4 for those making $75,000 or more. Men claimed more close friends than women (9.3 vs. 7.9). Among their various shortcomings, kids seem to be an impediment to friendship: Respondents with children age 18 or younger averaged 7.3 close friends, vs. 9.4 for adults without that distraction. Along the same lines, people in the prime child-rearing years of 30-49 had fewer close friends on average (7.0) than did the 18-29s (8.9), the 50-64s (8.7) and the 65-and-ups (12.5).

Which source of information most sways people when they make consumer decisions? Not advertising. In a study by Arnold Worldwide, people were given a list of influences and asked to assign a score to each of them, with the total adding up to 100. When the responses were averaged, the highest score went to family and friends (26), with Consumer Reports a close second (23). Advertising came in dead last (9), behind product-review Web sites (15), manufacturers’ Web sites (14) and sales staff (12). Apparently advertising should aim at consumers’ friends and relatives instead of at consumers themselves. Word-of-mouth has great dissuasive powers, according to the polling: 84 percent of respondents said they would avoid buying a brand of car about which they’d heard negative things.

It’s always fun when people give the less respectable answer to a pollster’s query. There was a good deal of that in a Popular Mechanics survey of men age 18-54 whose household income is at least $30,000. Asked if they “like to be intellectually challenged,” 62 percent said they do—which means that 38 percent declined to make such a claim. Likewise, 71 percent said they “never get tired of learning,” leaving 29 percent to abjure that self-congratulatory statement. Hats off to them!

If “Takes” were a bookmaking operation rather than a journalistic enterprise, we’d offer to take bets on the following proposition: If the average price for a gallon of regular gasoline is higher than $1.70 on election day, President Bush will lose the race; if the price is $1.70 or lower, he’ll win. Obviously, the president’s weak showing in recent surveys has multiple causes. But gasoline prices have an outsized effect on the national mood. Analysis accompanying the latest ABC News/ Money Consumer Comfort Index links the rise in gas prices to the sharp decline in consumer confidence this year (following gains late in 2003). It’s true that progress on the jobs front has been excruciatingly slow. Nonetheless, the trends there have at least been mostly in the right direction. Gasoline prices, though, are close to record highs in nominal prices. (Most folks ignore the fact that prices aren’t high by historical standards when adjusted for inflation.) If pump prices stay high, or move even higher, they could confound the upbeat forecasts for the economy in 2004.

Carbohydrates are so déclassé. That would explain the latest statistical wrinkle in America’s low-carb mania. Research by J. Brown Agency, a partner company of Grey Global Group, indicates that “the bulk of consumers who are driving the trend have high incomes, are well-educated and physically active.” Moreover, “retailers in upscale neighborhoods have the highest sales of low-carb products.” The study says people who live the “low-carb consumer lifestyle” tend to have pets but not children. It does not mention whether the pets follow a low-carb regimen.

Apparently the “dress casual” niche is too dressy and insufficiently casual to suit shoe shoppers. A study by The NPD Group finds a 4 percent decline in sales of women’s dress casual shoes in the period December 2002-November 2003, vs. the same period a year earlier. Sales of men’s dress casual shoes fell 7 percent. At the same time, women’s casual rose by 11 percent and men’s casual by 22 percent. Dress shoes fell by 5 percent among women and 9 percent among men.

“If you have your health,” it’s often said, “you have everything.” And a good thing, too, since some folks can’t afford much else. In a Cambridge Consumer Credit Index poll fielded by International Communications Research, 16 percent of Americans said they’re burdened with debt for medical or dental procedures or for the purchase of prescription drugs. Among people in this predicament, eight out of 10 said the debt constrains their ability to make big-ticket purchases. The problem is most acute among people who don’t have health insurance. As for those who are insured, price rises for premiums, deductibles and co-payments have yet to create a mass-scale crisis. So we learn from a poll conducted for The Wall Street Journal Online’s Health Industry Edition by Harris Interactive. As you can see from the chart below, few insured adults greatly struggle to pay their monthly premiums. One caveat: The number who find it “very difficult” to pay their premiums is markedly higher among respondents with individually purchased insurance than among those who have employer-provided coverage (17 percent vs. 3 percent). Just 4 percent of insured adults find it very difficult to pay for a doctor visit; 12 percent find it somewhat difficult. Seven percent said it’s very difficult to pay for their prescriptions; 18 percent said it’s somewhat so. These relatively modest figures are consistent with the findings of an Ipsos-Insight poll on drug re-importation. Political proposals to facilitate purchase of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and Mexico have drawn much attention. So far, though, there’s been little action by consumers: Fewer than 1 percent of Americans have purchased drugs from each of those countries.