What 2002 teaches us

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While it is a relief to have 2001 behind us, the political and economic uncertainties of 2002 put comfort and joy in shortened supply.

A burning issue for many marketers is how consumers will behave as this year progresses. We have gleaned a few clues from the hundreds of interviews with consumers that have formed the basis of "Changing American Lives," the ongoing study by McPheters & Co. and Beta Research, Syosett, N.Y., to track changes in behaviors, attitudes and media habits after Sept. 11. The study will continue through 2002.

Here are some of the trends that we anticipate as we move deeper into the year.

* Consumers will start to ease up on their purse strings by the end of the first quarter, especially if the stock market maintains its current levels or shows continued improvement. Americans have become accustomed to prosperity and are unresponsive to themes of self-denial and deprivation. We believe that the current belt-tightening will loosen-at least among those who are employed or have some measure of financial security.

* Spending patterns will change. Since consumers will spend more time at home, a larger proportion of total purchases will be directed toward items that enhance the at-home experience. This will be particularly true of men, who have increased the amount of time they spend at home to an even greater extent than women. Home electronics, home improvement, decoration, repairs, cooking, sewing, crafts, health and fitness will enjoy increased popular appeal.

* There will be a trend toward understatement and comfort. Americans have emerged from recent events with heightened sensitivity and concern for the needs of others, and with an increased appreciation for products-as diverse as macaroni and cheese, cashmere and insurance-that make us feel comfortable and secure.

Flash, the ostentatious and the outrageous are out; quality, reliability and familiarity are in. This bodes well for Volvo, but perhaps less well for Ferrari.

* Affluent Americans will become an even more important target for many advertisers, as this group will account for an increasing proportion of sales in many discretionary categories.

* While the increases we have seen in audiences for major media will moderate, audiences for major media will remain higher than those that we have experienced in recent years. This will result from the continued importance of news programming, the increased need for entertainment and escape and the fact that Americans will continue to stay closer to home-where most media consumption occurs.

* Lifestyles that are more oriented toward home and family will result in unprecedented levels of home shopping. Increased use of media, catalogs and online-shopping options will especially benefit advertisers who make it convenient for buyers to respond to appeals from the kitchen counter or a favorite chair.

* Interest in news will remain higher than normal, but we will also see an increased interest in entertainment and in media content related to the family, relationships and the home. The intense desire for economic security will also ensure that the demand for financial news will remain high.

* There will be increased value placed on established relationships and brand preferences. Marketers who maintain their advertising presence will achieve measurable gains in market share at the expense of those who neglect communications with their customers. Frequency of contact, emphasis on tradition and relationships, and product benefits that relate to family, home, safety and economy will strengthen campaigns.

Rebecca McPheters is president of McPheters & Co., (rmcpheters@mcpheters.com), a New York consultancy that provides strategic planning and market research to the media community.

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