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American Consumer Project

American Consumer Project: Jay in Leavenworth County, Kan.

For the Next Year, Ad Age Is Following 11 Households to Examine Consumer Behavior. Meet Jay, a Young Teacher, Student and Salsa Eater

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Leavenworth County, Kan. | Upscale Avenues | Military Bastions

Starting in October, Ad Age began a yearlong look at the American Consumer. We're working with Esri and the Patchwork Nation to examine the impact of demographic and economic change on consumer behavior. 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/consumer

Credit: David Flaherty

Michael Vick was, for a time, one of the most famous residents of Leavenworth, Kan. In his case, that was not something to be proud of . Leavenworth is most famous for the eponymous federal prison. It turns out that 's just one of the many penal facilities in this county. It's also home to the lucky inmates at the Lansing Correctional Facility (formerly the Kansas State Penitentiary) and the military's only maximum-security prison, the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, among others. The military prison sits in Fort Leavenworth, the sprawling base complex that helps define this county with its combined mission as a training center, corrections center, and Army base.

One difficulty with the American Consumer Project is that it's kind of hard to categorize some counties because counties are large geographic spaces. Some counties in this project -- like Teton Montana -- are pretty straightforward. Others are less so. L.A. County, home of Alfredo, is home to Burbank and Inglewood as well as all the socioeconomic diversity that is Los Angeles itself. Leavenworth is also a challenge. More than 20% of households earn less than $25,000 a year. A similar amount earn more than $100,000. So we've split its representation with rather different segment types in the Patchwork Nation and Esri's Tapestry.

In the Patchwork Nation, it fall under "Military Bastions" for pretty obvious reasons. The base is omnipresent and in many ways, prisons and bases have a lot in common economically.

Many of the military commanders live off base. There's a good deal of affluence. So the dominant Esri life-mode group in the tapestry is Upscale Avenues. That consumer segment is described as "prosperous." In this county it's hard to untangle wealth from the military that drives it. Esri describes Upscale Avenues like this: "Residents have earned their success from years of hard work. The median household income for the group is $70,720, and their median net worth is $188,740. Leavenworth's median income isn't quite that high, at $61,310, but it's still well above the national median.

These consumers invest in their homes; the owners work on landscaping and remodeling projects, and the renters buy new furnishings and appliances. They play golf, lift weights, go bicycling and take domestic vacations. Although they are partial to new cars, they also save and invest their earnings."

Then there's the other side of this have-and-have-not community. "Up north" in Leavenworth is the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. That's where Jay is from.

Jay is a white, 30-year-old high school teacher and wrestling coach, and part-time graduate student. He grew up poor. Not the "maybe we need to think about eating out less" kind of poor, but the real kind of poor.

"We had to have the lights turned off. Sometimes it would be like, do you want to have water or electricity this month. … We didn't have cable, didn't have a phone, didn't have a car until I was in high school." His family understood the difference between "want" and "need" in a way that most consumers typically don't have to comprehend.

The prisons are less of a fixture in the community because not too many people come and go from there except the staff. "I actually live like two blocks away from the federal pen," he says. "It's massive. You can see it."

But you can't overstate the impact of the base to the area. "In our school, we not only have an athletic hall of fame, we have the military hall of fame with all of the generals that have come out of our high school. Probably a third of our kids are military kids," Jay said.

"A lot of the businesses cater to the military."

Jay thought about enlisting, but only for one reason. "I was going to do it for money and now looking back, I wish I would have, because my commitment would be over and I'd have no college loans." He respects those who join up. "Because you grew up in the town, you have a lot of pride and respect for the military, and so it's a very much intertwined with our town's identity."

He grew up with his mom and brother but, like a near-majority of kids today, no dad at home. "I didn't really have a dad except for if [Mom] had a boyfriend at the time." Still, his mother knew times were tough and raised her boys to be tough, too. She didn't finish high school but eventually got her GED. She was a bartender and waitress and would take Jay to work with her, where he'd sit and read the newspaper to customers. He and his brother grew up to be voracious readers.

While she has since married and is now a nurse, she spent about 18 months in jail while Jay was in 8th and 9th grades. His younger brother moved in with his brother's dad, but that invitation didn't extend to Jay .

So Jay bounced between his grandmother's house and family friends. He almost flunked out because he didn't know where he was going to sleep from one night to the next. He finally settled in with a close friend's family and wound up on the honor roll for most of high school.

Jay said he grew up "super Christian" in the heart of the Bible belt. His grandmother would take the boys to church every Sunday. You can find a church "just about anywhere" in Leavenworth, he said. Jay even attended a Christian college for a year and a half before lapsing a bit. It's one of several colleges he went through before graduating from Missouri Valley College. He wrestled throughout college to gain the experience he knew he would need as a coach and won a national championship his senior year at MVC.

While he was in college his mom bought Jay a $1,000 "hooptie" Oldsmobile with her tax refund. While everyone loved the junker, all he wanted when he graduated and got his first teaching job was a new car. He splurged. "It was a silver, tinted windows, it had the disc changer, black leather seats. It was decked out."

Oh, and it was a Jetta.

A car is must-have for most Americans. But even an item that 's this big of a "need" can still have a lot of levels of "want" attached to it. In some case, too many. The car was cool, but not cool enough to justify the $450 monthly payment.

"After a few years, I realized it's idiotic that I'm paying this much for a car," Jay said. "I'm not that cool. You know, you get older and smarter. So I was like, 'just get the most boring car you can.' Now I traded that in and I got a [tan] 2007 Hyundai Elantra, and I have one more year left to pay it off. I can't wait."

Jay has cut $150 off his payment and plans to drive the Elantra into the ground." I'm going to just rock that thing until the wheels fall off, because I do not want a car payment for a while."

His eating habits float between healthy and bachelor, with Subway and chips and salsa being his dominant food groups.

"I am not a cook in any way, shape or form. I eat out a lot. For dinner I try to eat healthy, so I have Subway all the time. I go to my mom's house for dinner sometimes, as well. Or oftentimes, I'll just eat ramen noodles. Or if I have my salads. I'll make a salad or something for dinner."

Tostitos is his favorite brand of salsa, but he often gets the Walmart brand because it comes in larger quantities. He's disappointed in Tostitos for not filling his consumer appetites. "I go through salsa so fast that I can tear up their largest jar in one night. So Tostitos is effing up, because I would buy their big jug if they would make one."

He does most of his shopping at Walmart Stores for the convenience of buying groceries and any other items he might need in one location. His Walmart is all the way across town, but that only means five minutes or so out of his way. He lives about five minutes from his school, and the Walmart is about five minutes in the opposite direction. Inconvenience is measured in scale.

"I feel bad about [shopping at Walmart ] sometimes, because I feel like I should shop local and invest local, but I don't do it as often as I should," Jay said. He has practical reasons for wanting local businesses to survive. He needs them as sponsors. "I've seen a lot of business in Leavenworth go out of town. The biggest push for me is when, as a wrestling coach, I would go to businesses in town. I'm trying to do these fundraisers and get business support, and they would ask me, 'Do you ever shop here?'

Jay sees the hypocrisy of wanting their support but not supporting them in return."I need to form a better community connection and stop by these stores and shop there."

He views the struggles of local business through his student's eyes as well. He assigned his economics class to write newspaper-style reports on the Leavenworth economy. "When they did reports on local businesses, they would say how the businesses are hurting in town, and because of a place like Walmart they don't get the business that they used to."

The man cave is apportioned with plaid couches instead of black leather, but otherwise Jay and his roommate -- a high school friend -- live in a pretty typical bachelor pad complete with a small pool table, 50" TV and a PlayStation. It's a three-bedroom duplex, but the third bedroom is the game room. They use the garage for storage rather than for their cars.

At school, Jay 's in a self-imposed bubble. He gets to work between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. so he can get a couple of hours of planning and grading in before classes start. At home, he spends a lot of time online and is pretty much glued to Facebook and, increasingly, Twitter. "Twitter is my main way to get news, because things are sent out in Twitter before anything else," Jay said. "I'm not a big news-channel watcher. I find out about everything through Twitter. It's phenomenal. And I tweet a little bit, too." On Twitter he follows sports figures, ESPN writers and news sources. Facebook is for friends.

Jay 's friends are a lot of other single 30-ish guys although his best friends are a couple of years younger. He feels like he's getting a little old for clubbing, so he and his "bros" hit sports bars. His drinks of choice at the moment are Red Bull and vodka, Bud Light and Coors Light.

The big recent purchase was a ticket to the Kansas City Chiefs Monday Night Football game. Jay watches a lot of TV and plays Call of Duty and football games on PlayStation.

Jay doesn't go to as many movies as he'd like to, but when he does the big theater is about 25 minutes away at the mall. It's a little more upscale than what's available in Leavenworth, so about once a year he heads there to do his clothes shopping. He describes his dress as "sporty," and most of his clothes are athletic apparel and other items appropriate for a wrestling coach. He switched from New Balance to Nike shoes because he likes the shocks in the Nike shoes. A friend is trying to get him into shopping online because "everything is cheaper," but he's more intrigued by the idea of getting custom clothes. He wears an unusual size pant (32/30), so having more options would be a plus . "But I don't like to wait, and I like to see the product before I buy it. I want to try it on, and I don't like kind of the unknown of Internet buying."

Except for iTunes. He's addicted to shopping there and purchases music every week. He likes hip-hop and country -- from Jay -Z to Jason Aldean -- but also rock.

Though he thinks most of his shopping habits are pretty well-defined at this point, Jay 's willing to try new things. For a new item, it's got to be cool and fun and fit into his budget. "If I have to alter my lifestyle it's not worth it," he says.

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