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CONSUMERS TODAY

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One of the reasons for American Demographics' longevity is that we've managed to stay ahead of the curve by reporting on what we considered to be long-term trends that would alter consumer buying habits in a fundamental way. We haven't tried, for example, to chase ephemeral urban fads in clothing or shoes. Our focus has been to explore the ongoing and complex relationship between demographic trends, attitudinal shifts and changes in consumer behavior. We believed from our first issue, and continue to believe, that consumers, by their independent actions in the marketplace, irrevocably alter our nation's attitudes and culture. What follows is just a handful of the instances in which American Demographics was at the forefront of reporting on a trend that had a lasting impact on our society and its marketplace. The trends identified below continue to reshape the consumer landscape today.

The Growing Power of Women

  • “Advertisers are realizing that working wives are a rich and growing market that can't be captured by the strategies aimed at nonworking wives.? (November/December 1979)

    Though well accepted today, this observation expressed a point of view that was not widely held in the late 1970s. The same article pointed out that many people still believed that “education is wasted on a girl? and that “a woman's place is in the home.?

  • “For the first time in history, women who are in the work force think of their lives as richer and fuller than those of their nonworking counterparts. And the women at home agree.? (October 1979)

    Women were altering their status in society, despite strong societal pressures to “stay in the kitchen.? We wrote dozens of articles about shifts in consumer behavior resulting from the rapid increase in the number of women attending college and entering the work force.

  • “Working wives change the power structure of the family by equalizing the resources of husband and wife. This results in the working wife having more power in such family decisions as how money will be spent.? (September 1980)

This observation, a fairly radical idea at the time, was made by Robert Skrabanek, professor of sociology at Texas A&M University, in “The Growing Power of Women.?

We were chronicling not only an evolution in women's attitudes but their changing demographics as well. We were also alerting readers to the importance of shifting attitudes as a driver of demographic change. This was a time when conservative banks were not likely to offer even a credit card to a woman without her husband's signature. Skrabanek discussed the fact that women, who were in the minority prior to 1950, were becoming a larger majority of the U.S. population. The result was a shift of economic power in their direction. The author predicted that by 2000, there would be 105 women for every 100 men, but that the ratio would be higher among adults. Census 2000 reported that the gender ratio was nearly that: 104 women to 100 men, but among adults, the census found 107 women for every 100 men.

Our Increasingly Diverse Marketplace

Many of us take diversity for granted today. When this magazine was founded 25 years ago, however, there were only about 12 million Hispanics — heavily concentrated in the Southwest — and about 25 million African Americans.

  • In our first issue (January 1979), contributing editor Kathleen Platt wrote a profile on Hispanic Americans in which she noted that “as their numbers increase … their influence will increase accordingly.? Four years later we reported the Population Reference Bureau's prediction that “the growing Hispanic population could become the largest U.S. minority in the 21st century.? That projection assumed 1 million immigrants a year, an outrageously large number at the time, but one that turned out to be accurate. Census 2000 counted 35.3 million Hispanics versus 34.7 million African Americans. The black and Hispanic populations are now roughly the same size. However, the Hispanic population's rapid growth indicates that it's soon likely to become the nation's largest minority group.

Twenty-five years ago, Hispanics were only about 5 percent of the U.S. population — they're now 13 percent — and were not considered a large enough group to warrant any special marketing efforts. We thought otherwise, and reported frequently on Hispanics' rising numbers and their increasing purchasing power.

The Entrepreneurial Explosion

  • “Perhaps the rapid development of household microcomputing systems would make it possible to conduct business at home, combining motherhood, and even fatherhood, more readily with commerce.? (January 1979)

    This excerpt from the magazine's first editorial reveals an understanding of the importance of fledgling at-home businesses. Our awareness of this trend is not surprising, considering the fact that the first couple of dozen issues of American Demographics were drafted on a secondhand typewriter. Talk about archaic.

    We began reporting on the reasons for rapid growth in the number of women entrepreneurs some two decades ago, when there were only about 700,000 businesses owned by women (and even that number was thought to be inflated). According to the Census Bureau, there are over 5 million women-owned businesses today.

  • In a 1981 article, “The Woman Entrepreneur,? Jill Charboneau, the magazine's first managing editor, marked a milestone for working women. “This year, for the first time, the number of women in the work force outnumbers the number who are not,? she wrote. “The entrance of large numbers of women into well-paying professional jobs could provide a deepening pool of experienced decision makers who will become potential entrepreneurs in the future.?

Health Care, Aging and Alternative Medicine

  • Dorothy Rice, the director of the National Center for Health Statistics, explored Americans' rapidly increasing life expectancy in one of our early issues (October 1979). She predicted that between 1978 and 2003, the elderly population (age 65 and older) would increase 59 percent, from about 24 million to 38 million, if reductions in mortality among the elderly continued as they had in the recent past. Not a bad prediction, considering that Census 2000 counted 35 million Americans age 65 and older.

  • The combination of an aging population and the rising number of college-educated adults resulted in a surge in the numbers of informed health care consumers, which in turn drove demand for alternative medical care. Seventeen years ago (March 1986), we documented the growing popularity of wellness clinics and the declining confidence in traditional medicine: “Upscale consumers … are less likely to place absolute authority in one doctor.? As we often noted, some consumer segments were several years ahead of their health care providers.

  • Ten years ago, in an article on herbal medicines and other alternative treatments, we reported that a “growing share of patients are avoiding conventional medicine in favor of alternative therapies … over one-third of Americans have turned to alternative cures. But alternative therapy users are most likely to be affluent, well-educated, white Baby Boomers who live in the West.? (July 1993)

  • Of course, some things don't change. More than half of Americans were, and continue to be, overweight. Twenty-two years ago, our first editor, Bryant Robey, wrote (March 1981), “On the scale, Americans are a sorry lot: Only about 24 percent of adults are within 5 percent of their desirable body weight; about 18 percent are below, and fully 58 percent above. Almost 15 percent of the adult population is overweight by at least 30 percent.? Today, about 60 percent of adults are above their ideal weight.

The Rising Demand for Adult Education

Because we began publishing in a college town (Ithaca, N.Y., home to Cornell), education trends have always been a major topic for us. We reported often on rising levels of education, the link between education and household income, and the effect of educational attainment on consumer behavior.

  • Fifteen years ago (February 1988), our editor, Brad Edmondson, made the following prediction: “The next 15 years are likely to be even better for adult education than the last 15 years.? Among the reasons he cited: “Baby Boomers will continue to be the best customers of adult education, because the better educated people are, the more willing they are to sign up for more schooling.? Time has proven his prediction to be correct.

The Surging Demand for Luxury Goods

Years before Viking stoves and Sub-Zero refrigerators became the rage, we suggested that there would be increasing demand for homes that offered more convenience and luxury features.

  • We suggested more than 20 years ago (November/December 1979) that there would be additional demand for the ultimate luxury product — a second home. During the 1970s, the number of second homes rose about 25 percent, slightly below the 27 percent growth in the number of all households. In the following decade, the number of second homes swelled by 57 percent, compared to a mere 15 percent rise in the number of all households.

  • A recession was in progress in July of 1990, when our research editor, Judy Waldrop, wrote: “Upscale households are clustered among adults in their 40s and 50s — the peak earning years. The nation's 19 million upscale households are the choicest market for luxury goods and services.? Later that year, in the article “The Age of Spending,? we reported about the growing number of middle-age upper-income householders, predicting that this would soon cause a spike in spending on nonessential items, such as home-care services and vacation homes.


Peter Francese is the founder of American Demographics. He can be reached at peter@francese.com.

OUR BEGINNINGS American Demographics was established in 1978. Our first issue debuted months later, in January 1979, promising to deliver fresh insight into our buying behavior.

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