Consumer Buying Habits Appear to Be Back to Normal

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CINCINNATI ( -- Sept. 11 produced a surprisingly sharp slowdown in package-goods sales through the end of 2001, particularly in personal and household products, followed by a sharp rebound in the first quarter, according to a report from Information Resources Inc.

The numbers paint a picture of an America whose buying patterns resembled signs of psychological depression as much as economic recession following Sept. 11. Suddenly, consumers paid less attention to, or at least less money for, keeping up appearances of their looks and homes. They bought fewer beauty, personal-care, cleaning and weight-loss products, while loading up on snacks and alcoholic beverages.

Back to normal
By early this year, however, most categories were back to normal, according to IRI. Total package-goods sales rose 5.4% in the 12 weeks ended March 24. That was slightly above the 5% growth rate during the 36 weeks ended Sept. 9 and a rebound from the 1.8% growth rate for the 16 weeks ended Dec. 30 -- reflecting the period immediately following Sept. 11.

The Sept. 11 effect

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was most pronounced in non-food categories, where sales fell 1.3% in the 16 weeks following the felling of the World Trade Center, according to IRI figures. Non-food sales rose 3.3%, however, in the first quarter, nearly recovering to the 3.6% growth rate seen during the 36 weeks prior to Sept. 11.

Big swing in beauty care
Beauty care was the single IRI "mega-category" most affected by the sharp downturn and bounceback, down 1.5% in the 16 weeks ended Dec. 30, but up 6.2% in 12 weeks ended March 24. Household cleaning products saw a 0.3% decline in the period right after Sept. 11, recovering to a 4.5% first-quarter increase.

The IRI numbers combine scanner data from food, drug and mass merchandise channels with consumer panel data to estimate sales for Wal-Mart Stores, but do not include club or dollar stores.

Not recession-proof
The sharp swings in momentum indicate package goods, particularly in non-food categories, may be less recession-proof than long believed. Indeed, non-food package-goods sales as measured by IRI were slightly more volatile -- and slower-growing -- than the current-dollar U.S. gross domestic product, which rose 1.5% in the fourth quarter and 6.6% in the first quarter.

The growth of more premium-price offerings over the past decade may have helped make package-goods less recession-resistant than in the past, said Ed Kuehnle, president-North America for IRI.

But he added: "I think this [volatility] was an anomaly. The resiliency of the way sales came back indicates it was more a reaction to a tragic event. ... You did have people nesting a little more in their homes, snacking maybe to satisfy anxiety, along with a very different way of thinking about things like whether you're more concerned about losing weight or meeting your immediate needs."

Pets and babies
Babies and pets in particular got short shrift immediately following Sept. 11, with sales of baby food, baby-care items and pet food all declining by 2% to 4% through the end of 2001 as consumers apparently switched to lower-priced options. Pet-care sales bounced back, increasing 5.4% in the first quarter, but baby-care sales declined 1.5%, suggesting consumers may have decided to stick with lower-priced baby-care options, at least temporarily, according to IRI.

Some categories, however, seemingly bucked the trends. Oral care, including such whitening products as Crest Whitestrips, continued to see strong double-digit sales growth behind new-product initiatives before and after Sept. 11, Mr. Kuehnle said. Snacking categories also had strong double-digit growth throughout the period. Despite a temporary Sept. 11-induced slowdown, weight-loss products sales are still up 15% for the 52 weeks ended May 19, according to IRI.

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