In what may seem like a contradiction, residential mobility is at a record low but Americans are away from home more than ever before. As Boomers age into their sixth decade, they are not changing their residence as often as they used to. But for many reasons, they and other consumers are spending less time at home.
This has to be one of the more head-shaking consumer trends. The average U.S. suburban house has grown larger and more expensive every year, and yet that average house has fewer people living in it and the occupants appear to be spending less time there. It probably makes as much sense as buying a three-ton SUV to get to and from the mall.
But let us not forget this American marketplace truth: not many businesses make money serving sensible consumers. Fortunately, no one has ever accused Baby Boomers of being sensible, like their predecessors. If they were, they would stay home, watch TV, read the paper, open their mail and be the dream target market we hoped they'd be.
The reality is that several consumer trends are at work here that make it increasingly likely that on an average day fewer people will be at home, and that more homes than ever before will be empty on weekends and holidays. Here are a few of those trends and what they mean for consumer marketing.
FEWER CHILDREN AT HOME WITH MOM
Once upon a time, the presence of children in a household tended to keep at least mom at home. But in many suburban households today, the busy schedule of after-school activities combined with summer camp programs and the like, means that fewer kids are home. And for teenage children, the vast majority of whom have two working parents, it's probably a good thing that they have after-school programs or part-time jobs.
But two-thirds of U.S. households contain no children. And, as the most rapid household growth takes place among folks above age 50, the number of childless households will expand further. The average householder in the U.S. is now 49 years old, and aging fast. The 4- to 5-percent per year increase expected among householders age 55 to 64 will drive that average over 50 within a few years. Fact is, we are becoming a nation of empty nesters.
However, today's empty nesters are wealthier, more likely to be employed and have more disposable income than those in the past. The Bureau of Census reports a 20 percent jump in real inflation-adjusted household income during the 1990s for households headed by 55- to 64-year-olds, which gave them an extra $145 billion to spend. They spent some of those billions on traveling. During the '90s the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the percentage of households that bought airline tickets more than doubled, and there was a 30 percent rise in spending on out-of-town trips.
Another BLS report states that by 2000, 52 percent of women ages 55 to 64 were in the workforce, and projects that by 2010, that figure will be 55 percent — a full 10 points above the 1990 participation rate among women in that age group. The workforce participation rate for men ages 55 to 64 is expected to hold steady at 67 percent. The point is, with a solid majority working, these empty nesters are not likely to be sitting around the old homestead.
MORE SECOND HOMES
The trends driving ownership of second homes have been well reported in the past (see American Demographics' June 2002 and June 2003 issues). The combination of an increasing number of pre-retirees with more than ample assets, the rise in real estate prices and the paucity of alternative investments suggest that a sizable fraction — if not a majority — of empty nesters will buy or rent a second home within the next decade.
Most people who purchase a second residence want one that is either close enough that they can easily visit it on weekends, or is in a place where they can more comfortably spend an entire winter or summer. So the rising numbers of second home owners are probably going to spend, in the aggregate, between a quarter and a third of an average year away from their primary home.
One thing that empty nesters, second home owners and two-earner households have in common is that they eat out more often and spend more on food away from home. Thus, despite the proliferation of incredibly lavish kitchens, fewer and fewer Americans are at home even at mealtimes.
So what does this mean for the future marketing of goods and services if a shrinking number of customers are to be found at home? First, it means that consumers will spend more money on services and will probably spend less on certain products.
Instead of buying an expensive lawn mower, for example, a typical homeowner may opt for a mowing service. Instead of buying cans of paint, homeowners may hire a painter. But we may see less home maintenance because the frequently absent homeowner won't be paying such close attention to how the place looks.
Several decades ago, when married women began to work outside the home in large numbers, the first thing they did was stop changing their sheets so often. The result was that sales of bed linens suffered because threadbare sheets were not so noticeable. Perhaps, as people spend less time at home they will pay less attention to how the place looks and sales of landscaping, high-maintenance plants and home repair supplies will suffer, save for low maintenance shrubs and vinyl windows.
But perhaps the biggest impact of people spending less time at home will be on the home-based media through which advertisers have traditionally reached consumers. A public that is at work for longer hours, travels more often, frequently eats out or spends more time at a second home is less likely to watch local television news, listen to a local radio station or read the community newspaper or pay attention to what comes in the mail.
One visible sign of fewer people at home is the large numbers who are canceling their home land-line telephone service and using only a cellular phone. Consumers are asking the important question: why pay for a home phone when we're so seldom there?
Advertising placed in the belief that there will be someone at home to see it or hear it will simply be less efficient. This suggests that we will probably see an increase in the use of outdoor advertising, venue advertising at sports, music or other events, and point-of-sale advertising or other in-store promotions. Unfortunately, it means that we will likely see more advertising in the movie theaters. That may be enough to make people want to go back home.
Peter Francese is the founder of American Demographics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.