Long before the turmoil triggered by the credit crisis, the consumer spending malaise gripping the working class had spread to the most affluent.
That's because consumer attitudes have been changing since 2005. Now they are being forged into a new sense of practicality hammered home by tighter credit and higher prices.
"After buying just about anything for the past 20 years, people think they have too much stuff," said J. Walter Smith, president of Yankelovich Inc., a market research firm. "Self-indulgence is over. We've entered a period of self-discipline."
The sentiment was echoed by three other consumer spending gurus at recent conferences staged by the Tampa Bay Luxury Marketing Council and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Nobody's talking Depression-era bread lines. But for an economy that gets two-thirds of its oomph from consumer spending, the shifts hang ominously over any consumer-led recovery.
On the simplest level, the trend is about saving money as spending power erodes. In supermarkets we've seen store brands soar while national brands gather dust until discounted. Sit-down restaurants are coping with more people eating at home. The affluent still buy pricey clothes at Neiman and Nordstrom. But they don't buy as much or as often.
Consumers are tapped out while rethinking what a value is. Luxury spending is no exception. The Unity Marketing Luxury Index, which tracks shopping habits among 1,024 households with at least $200,000 in annual income, fell in 2007 and hit a record low in May.
"The luxury business will remain tough even after the economy rebounds because we're not going back to where we were," said Uche Okonkwo, a Paris-based researcher whose clients include Louis Vuitton and Chanel. "We have fewer 'aspirational' middle-class shoppers. The old-money shopper who can afford it insists more value be engineered into luxury goods to justify a higher price."
Spending rituals are changing. Families stopped going out to Coldstone Creamery and now share Ben & Jerry's. Many families opt for giant sizes of toothpaste instead of several brands to please each family member. Nights out at the movies are DVDs at home.
It's more than price. Products sensitive to environmental, energy efficiency or charitable concerns are more valued. But people cling to comforts.
"There is shift is from gas-guzzling F-150s to the Ford Focus," Smith said. "But the Focus better be fully loaded."
Shoppers don't cheap out on hair- or skin-care products. But sales of them are rising because the percentage of working-class women trying to cut trips to salons leaped to 42 percent.
"It's an opportunity for stores to create home personal care product kits," said Tom Blischok, president of consulting at IRI Inc., a Chicago firm that tracks packaged goods.
People feel pressured by time poverty and the speed of multi-media that interrupts their lives with the latest crisis 24/7.
"People feel a need to be in control and will shop stores that share their values and make them feel in charge," said Wendy Liebmann of WSL Retail Strategy Inc., a New York firm.
But the root motivation is not all about value.
With many people cutting corners to make ends meet, there's a new sensibility that staying ahead of the Joneses is bad taste.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.