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Published: Thursday, 11/13/2008

Tough times may provide silver lining

Feel like you're drowning lately in bad economic news?

A hundred layoffs here, a thousand there. Plant shutdowns.

Circuit City filed for bankruptcy. Now General Motors wonders if it will, too, even as the entire auto industry pleads for government help.

Consumer spending is so tight now that the country's second-largest mall owner, General Growth Properties (local translation: The Shops at Fallen Timbers) threatened bankruptcy unless it could refinance.

Hank Paulson, meanwhile, says the Treasury Department's bailout should zig instead of the previously agreed upon zag.

Even a couple of movie-theater companies reported declines this week, mostly on slipping concession sales. (Who's surprised? It can cost as much for snacks as the movie ticket. No wonder we often hear the click-hiss of contraband soda cans being opened during the trailers.)

Best Buy, issuing a gloomy forecast yesterday, cited "rapid, seismic" changes in consumer behavior. And it's not just the paycheck-to-paycheck set.

Unity Marketing, which tracks the rich, reported its "Luxury Consumption Index" had plummeted. In a poll of affluent consumers (average income: $210,700), more than half said they were spending less on luxury now than they did one year ago. More ominously, they expected to spend less in the next 12 months, too.

The rich, said Unity president Pam Danziger, "are trading down." They're picking simpler restaurants, eating out less often, and "simply staying out of the stores to resist temptation."

The Wall Street Journal notes that "splurging doesn't feel as good as it used to." When recessionistas tighten their belts, those belts are more likely to come not from Tod's but Target. Back in the day, when "Jimmy Choo shoes hit $800, many people said they 'needed' the latest shoe anyway," the Journal said, contrasting that with the current attitude: "After years of gluttonous shopping, forgoing our wants feels virtuous, like using up leftovers."

Of course, Toledo is fashion-oblivious. If someone here said "Jimmy Choo" in line at the grocery, the person in front of them would turn and say, "Gesundheit!" Rest assured, I make this observation as praise, but never mind, it's beside the point now.

"Buying binge slams to a halt," the New York Times announced Tuesday: "The American consumer, long the spender of last resort for the global economy, may finally be spent."

Money magazine's holiday gift guide reports that "a thoughtful $10 present can be as meaningful as one with a few more zeros," as if this is some brand-new way of thinking.

Sigh.

Yes, yes, I know. People are truly suffering now. And yes, I also know sharp drops in consumer spending push our economy closer to the cliff's edge. Without meaning to downplay the hardship of those who've lost their jobs or homes, I have been wondering something lately, so let me ask this without meaning to sound glib:

Couldn't there be a silver lining (OK, tin) in our collective inability or reluctance to stop spending money as a form of recreation?

If one unintended consequence of the economic freefall is that we become less "thing" obsessed, would that really be so bad?



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