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American Consumer Project: Chris, in Clark County, Nev.

For the Next Year, Ad Age Is Following 11 Households to Examine Consumer Behavior. Meet Chris, a Divorced Boomer Dad in a Former Boomtown

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For the next year, Ad Age is working with Esri and the Patchwork Nation to examine the impact of demographic and economic change on American consumers. We are tracking 11 households in 11 representative counties to see how their experiences differ. In this piece we introduce one of those households. For more on the project and segments, see http://adage.com/special-reports/americanconsumerproject/171

Sometimes having the president come to town is a bad sign. President Barack Obama selected Clark County, Nev., as the backdrop for a speech unveiling his latest plan to help homeowners with underwater mortgages. He had good reason for choosing this destination. The Las Vegas area has been especially hard affected by the boom and bust of the latest real estate cycle. After years of hardship, foreclosure rates in Nevada are still the worst in the nation. According to RealtyTrac, one in every 118 housing units received a foreclosure notice in September 2011 -- a rate nearly six times as high as the national average. In North Las Vegas, it was one in 53, or more than 2% of all housing units. The average foreclosure in Clark County sells for less than $120,000.

Clark, NV
Clark, NV Credit: David Flaherty

The pain was felt on the Strip, too. The year 2009 saw the worst dip ever in gambling revenue, with receipts plunging over 10%; 2010 managed only a 0.1% increase. Flat is the new up.

Chris is in an ideal place to watch it all. He manages a hotel in North Las Vegas that 's far removed from the glitz of the Strip. There are no high rollers here. The hotel is mostly a stopping place for salespeople calling on the nearby big-box stores and visiting buyers waiting out a foreclosure proceeding. Its 75 rooms barely register in a county with 150,000. The closure of the Yucca Mountain nuclear facility by the Department of Defense hurt business.

Just because Chris has a good seat doesn't mean he has the economy figured out any more than anyone else. "The market's certainly changed, and it's changing constantly now, so you never know from day to day what it's going to be like, let alone week to week or month to month."

Chris, 49, is white and divorced. He has custody of his 12-year-old daughter on weekends, when they spend a lot of time shopping.

Clark County is one of the quintessential boomtowns in the Patchwork Nation. These fast-growing communities rode the economic waves of the 2000s hard. North Las Vegas itself now needs to win big to stave off insolvency so severe that the state is considering taking over the city of 200,000-plus residents. One government official quoted in the Las Vegas Sun said that the city planned only for growth, never considering the possibility of a downturn. It's easy to see why: Clark County's 42% population growth during the last decade was the slowest since it became a county in 1909.

It appears that people move to Vegas for only one reason: hope. It manifests itself in different ways, from the quick score, to the now-broken promise of prosperity. For Chris, it was to get a fresh start.

Like many Clark County residents, Chris is originally from L.A. He's been in the Vegas area off and on for nearly 20 years and in his current North Las Vegas home for about four years. In his 20s he served in the Air Force, in Langley, Va., California and Turkey. He spent a few years as a stockbroker, then came to Clark in 1993. Once he'd established residency, he was able to attend the University of Nevada-Las Vegas paying in-state tuition. He got into the hotel business through an employment agency. He started at the front desk and worked his way up. He likes the daily interactions with guests and the changing routine.

In the Tapestry Framework, Clark County's dominant segment is Family Portrait. It has many families with children, and is younger and more diverse than the U.S. average. Hispanics make up roughly 22 % of the population. While real estate soared, construction and service jobs were plentiful and well-paying, which led to an influx of immigrants.

Chris and his family lived in Colorado for a time, but he moved back to Nevada when he and his wife divorced in 2005. She followed him back a short while later. His daughter plays a big role in his life, and for a single guy who lives alone, Chris often talks about "we."

He does most of his grocery shopping at a nearby Walmart. He comes home around 5:30 p.m. and may stop at Vaughn's, a regional chain, on his half-hour commute but primarily shops on Saturdays with his daughter. "I always ask her opinion on everything," Chris said. "She's getting to that age where she needs her own things, so I'm always making sure we get her stuff, whether it's shampoo or clothes.

"We're always trying something new for dinner, but … there are some things that we always get." His daughter drives adventurousness in shopping, according to Chris. "When it's time to buy cereal, she's always picking something different. I'm pretty much picking the same. Sometimes they have something that looks new, intriguing, and it might be on sale -- so I might get that instead."

His hotel job gives Chris unique insight into household goods, such as cleaning products. "We get a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't when it comes to supplies, but every once in a while there's something that comes out that looks interesting enough to get."

Chris has been trying to eat more healthfully as he nears 50, which means he tries to do more cooking. Recession-related cutbacks are also a factor. "I used to eat out a lot, and it gets expensive," he said. "We [would] go to buffets or to some of the coffee shops, but we also like the fast foods, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Ruby Tuesday, Olive Garden -- places like that ."

Now, Chris said, "I try to cook from scratch as much as possible, but it's a lot of work, especially when I'm by myself. A lot of times it's just prepared meals, and then during the weekend it's usually from scratch."

With his new awareness has come Healthy Choice becoming Chris's favored microwave meal. He's always read price tags but is now checking out nutrition labels, too. That information is helping move him away from the store brands he bought during the recession. "Lately I've been finding that I'm getting more name brands, because 10 cents on a box is not that big of a difference."

One recurring theme in the American Consumer Project is that everyone draws the line somewhere. In Teton County, Frankie must have her name-brand corn. Chris is happy with store-brand ice cream "because ice-cream is so expensive," but he won't skimp on cereals or cake mix. "It's General Mills or Kellogg's … and Duncan Hines for cake mix or stuff like that . I'm finding out that the price per portion isn't really as expensive."

We also see throughout this project that those who don't use coupons realize that they should. "When I do [clip coupons], it's like I end up leaving it, and I forget to take it with me," Chris said. "But I'm finding that more often than not I probably should be." Like many, though, he has tried Groupon.

Chris is experimenting with social media sites for the hotel and has attended seminars at the local Chamber of Commerce. In addition to wanting to provide better service, he wants to view and respond to guests' online comments. The hotel isn't in a position to hire someone to work on a web strategy, so it falls to Chris to learn and keep up. His daughter's not much help here. She'd rather play her own games.

About four times a year he goes to L.A. to see his mother. She can't visit as often as she used to. Chris uses the rest of his vacation time to take trips with his daughter. They're looking forward to a Disney Cruise next year. While he could probably get free rooms at other properties in his hotel chain, he doesn't tend to vacation in places where he can take advantage of that perk.

The cruise is going to be a big expense, and Chris is saving for it. Any year-end bonus will go toward that and to paying down debt. He pays off his credit card each month, having learned a hard lesson about that when he was right out of school. Chris and his mom have also been putting aside money for his daughter's college tuition. A seventh-grader, she's already decided she wants to go to USC, but "there's no way we'll be able to afford that ," Chris said.

His daughter's biggest impact on the shopping is perhaps an added stop on the errand circuit related to Blossom, a tabby kitten. The Walmart lacks a good selection of pet food, so Chris has been going to PetSmart and Petco for Science Diet and Blossom's current favorite, Iams. The cat's not all for her, though. "Part of it was for my daughter, but it's also just so I didn't feel alone in the house during the week."

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