Mark Dolliver’s Takes: Mixed Blessings

Though housing starts are expected to decline this year, it won’t stop homeowners from remodeling the houses they’ve already got. In fact, a report from Kitchen and Bath Business suggests a slowdown in house sales could yield gains in remodeling as prosperous consumers spruce up their current homes instead of buying new dwellings. The report forecasts that spending on kitchen remodeling will total $79 billion this year, up 7 percent from 2006. Growth in high-end kitchen projects—those costing $15,000 or more—is expected to be even stronger, at 10 percent vs. 2006. Bathroom remodeling will be a $39.2 billion market this year, the magazine predicts, up 1 percent from 2006. More than half of all spending in this category ($21.9 billion) will be for projects priced at $8,000 and up. (Gold-plated faucets, anyone?) The report predicts that 33 percent of kitchen projects will entail a professional designer, as will 25 percent of bath-remodelings. Nearly half of all kitchen remodelings (48 percent) will be of the do-it-yourself variety, but these will account for just 27 percent of spending on that room. Likewise, 55 percent of bath projects will be do-it-yourself, but these will account for 26 percent of all spending there.

If “free trade” were a consumer brand, it would be in need of a relaunch. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds 46 percent of adults saying free-trade agreements have hurt the U.S., vs. 28 percent saying they’ve helped the country. Sixteen percent said free trade hasn’t made a difference either way, and 10 percent weren’t sure. The same poll found 25 percent saying the U.S. “is benefiting from the global economy,” vs. 48 percent saying it’s “being harmed by the global economy.” There’s an indication, though, that hostility toward globalization is more a socio-political judgment than an expression of personal distress. As you can see from the chart below, people who feel personally harmed by the globalized economy just slightly outnumber those who feel it’s a personal plus. And a plurality don’t feel it impinges on them one way or another. This suggests that foreign-based brands (and U.S. companies with a conspicuous stake in free trade) can strike a rapport with American consumers that coexists with distaste for globalization in the abstract.

While fewer Americans are eager to buy domestic cars, a majority still have a favorable view of the No-Longer-So-Big Three automakers. In a Rasmussen Reports poll, 69 percent of adults said they regard General Motors favorably; 22 percent see it unfavorably. The vote was closer for Ford: 57 percent favorable, 30 percent unfavorable. Chrysler, which seems less American since its merger into DaimlerChrysler, was viewed favorably by 51 percent and unfavorably by 31 percent. The same poll found a welcoming attitude toward the establishment of U.S. factories by foreign auto companies: 58 percent of respondents said it’s a good thing for the American economy, while 19 percent said it’s bad.

If you had a nickel for every consumer who’s voiced interest in hybrid vehicles but then bought something else, you could buy yourself a hybrid personal jet. We wrote earlier this month about a decline in the proportion of prospective car buyers who said they were considering hybrids. Now, a report from R.L. Polk & Co. offers further evidence that hybridmania has abated (for now). The number of hybrids on the road is growing, but the rate of increase is slowing, Polk finds. Registrations of new hybrid vehicles totaled 254,545 last year, up 28 percent from 2005. That rise—from a small base—is “the second-lowest year-over-year increase since 2000.” Given the way high gas prices had Americans foaming at the mouth last year, a comparatively tepid rise in hybrid sales suggests considerable consumer resistance to the category. If the planet is saved, it won’t be because American drivers are now buying hybrids in droves.

They’re not ubiquitous yet, but they’re getting there. A report by WSL Strategic Retail forecasts that full-service clinics now being launched inside drugstores, mass merchandisers and supermarkets “will change the way we experience routine medical care.” So far, there are fewer than 1,000 of them, and just 15 percent of Americans have used one. However, 41 percent said they’d use an in-store clinic “if they had one nearby.” Get ready for the day when retailers offer a tonsillectomy as a loss-leader item to get people into the store.

Granted, people get passionate about love and sex and the like. But in these houseproud times, they’re as likely to get worked up about home decor. An ad for Floor360, a retailer of designer floor coverings, taps into that sentiment in the ad shown above. If the man of her dreams ran off with “another,” the attractive woman here could easily replace him. How much more wrenching, though, to gaze at “the carpet that belonged to another.” No wonder she can’t resist the impulse to steal “one last glimpse.” Shine Advertising of Madison, Wis., created the emotive ad.

Some workers would settle for a boss who is certifiably human, irrespective of gender. But an online poll by Elle and MSNBC finds a general preference for male bosses over the female variety—though a majority of respondents claimed not to care either way. (Caveat: Though it had 60,000-plus participants, this was an unscientific poll open to all comers.) Asked whether they’d prefer to work for a man or a woman, 37 percent of female participants picked the man, vs. 12 percent picking the woman and the rest saying it makes no difference. Among male participants, 30 percent would rather have a man as boss and 13 percent would prefer a woman. It’s not that people fear a woman would be a power-hungry harridan: 39 percent think a male boss is more likely to be a bully, vs. 22 percent saying this of a female boss. Still, they believe a man is more likely than a woman to be “an effective leader” (37 percent vs. 12 percent).

Buy and hold—and hold and hold. That’s the attitude of the typical investor, judging by an Associated Press/Ipsos Public Affairs poll. Adults who own stocks, mutual funds or bonds were asked how often in the past 12 months they’d made changes in their holdings. Half said they’d done so once (17 percent) or not at all (33 percent). Thirteen percent had made changes twice in that period. Twenty percent had made changes five times or more, including 4 percent who’d done so at least 25 times.