I think it's fair to say the general conversation about the economy borders on, well, the hysterical. I'm certainly no economist (not that they know anything about the economy anyway!) but radical changes in spending and behavior may be completely warranted. Even for people like myself whose job has not been affected directly, I certainly feel caught up in the zeitgeist of thrift. I realized my main hole of discretionary spending was eating out - and take out. This was almost completely a laziness thing. I'm a good enough cook that I often don't need to follow recipes, and can whip enough weeks worth of lunches in a jiffy. I bought a crock-pot, and I feel proud of myself for cutting down on spending too much money on unhealthy, mediocre food just to get by -- and I always felt guilty about the mound of plastic and trash even one take-out meal generates. And I know that even if I throw whatever I want into the grocery cart, it will cost a lot less than eating out.
I think my behavior is pretty unoriginal/universal/rational/predictable. What's interesting about this is the macro consumer trends I represent. Yes, people are spending less, but we haven't all ripped up our debit cards and moved to the woods to forage on berries. People are still spending money -- it's just not on the same things. And what people are spending money on I think tells some interesting stories about how consumer culture will trend and what kinds of businesses will continue to be profitable.
The need to eat is constant -- if people aren't eating out, they are certainly still eating. I decided to ask around my neighborhood at grocery stores about how business was going. Adam, the general manager at the Key Foods on 7th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn said, "We're doing a robust business." Sales are up over the last two years -- while some may be attributed to remodeling and changes in the neighborhood demographic, he notes that there are more customers and higher sales recently.
At the Park Slope Food Coop which is a non-profit, and of which I'm a member, patrons get groceries with an only 20% mark-up, and also get an amazing array of very fresh and cheap organic vegetables. The catch? Every single member over 18 has to work at 2 and a half hour shift every 4 weeks. I find the whole experience to be good chaotic socialist fun with delicious results -- but it's certainly not for everyone. I stopped by the membership office to ask how business was, where I was informed it's also booming - membership is up 10% (the coop has some 13,000 members) and sales are up 20%.
"I heard sales at Whole Foods is down. Maybe people have decided they don't have to have organic, or if they do, they're willing to put up with the coop," said the membership staffer with a grin.
Yes, so maybe the high-end restaurant business ain't going so hot, but people are actually willing to take the time to shop and cook for themselves -- cheaper products that aren't value added are going to be increasingly in demand. The San Fransisco Chronicle reports that while most retail stores are seeing the biggest monthly drop in over 15 years, food and grocery stores are up 5%. Americans can no longer afford to be as hands off in their food habits, so businesses who produce staples rather than high end value added convenience products (i.e. a costly restaurant meal) already are seeing profit margins increase.
Long term, this downturn could have positive effects on the economic, social and physical health of the country, and could expedite the back to the earth changes in social norms that environmentalists and food experts a la Michael Pollan have been advocating for - and have mostly been the province of the wealthy. For example:
1) People cook generally much healthier food than they eat in restaurants (Most would never intentionally add as much butter and salt as chefs do).
2) Using basic food staples, rice, dried beans, raw vegetables, etc. require a self sufficiency and knowledge that many grownups decidedly lack, but can also be learned quickly when it's a question of necessity.
3) Large quantities of meat, which Americans love, may increasingly become a luxury, so people may adjust meat eating habits to be less excessive, which could have positive environmental and health implications.
4) Throw-away culture may decrease. Wasteful, one-time use products, like paper towels have already seen a noticeable decline over -- 11% compared to last year. Trees, landfills and consumers win on changes like these. (Check out this cool NY Times consumer trends chart.)
Maybe we aren't immediately going to revert to 19th century processed-free food nirvana, (the New York Times reports Spam sales are sky rocketing) but some businesses are in fact booming, and I'm sure there are some smart entrepreneurs out there who can capitalize on the fact that Americans are now willing to lift a finger to produce what they need.