The Big Picture: Subtle changes

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Perceptions changed six months ago today. America's consumers largely haven't.

Sept. 11 has had significant aftereffects, but they appear to be mainly personal, marked by shifting priorities toward family and home and a greater appreciation for life. The predicted major consumer transformations have not materialized, and the wobbly economy appears to have had more of a direct impact on consumers' lives than a direct terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

Consumers are still spending, and retail is recovering. The Dow last week saw its highest level since summer. Auto sales, powered by incentives, held up well, though 2002 sales are spotty. Unemployment dipped to 5.5% in February, marking the first two-month decline since 2000. The Conference Board's consumer confidence index fell in February after a short, steady climb.

For now, ubershoppers continue to be enthusiastic, though frivolity is tempered and bargains key. Fear of flying is subsiding. Religious-service attendance is down from its peak. While attention to relatives is still keen, time spent with them continues to lag for fear layoffs could leave people spending too much quality time .

Experts, however, caution not to write off seismic shifts. "Just because there aren't a lot of short-term effects doesn't mean there won't be a lot of long-term effects," said Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist and marketing professor at Montreal's McGill University.

It's difficult to separate the lingering effects of terror attacks from effects of recession. "The uncertainty after the terrorist attacks-that's all faded away, and the [worry] that's left is the economy," said Graceann Bennett, exec VP-director of brand planning at Havas Advertising's Arnold Worldwide, Boston.


One prediction that appears to have materialized is nesting. Martha Stewart, chairman-CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, said e-mail traffic on and readership of Martha Stewart Living jumped as a direct result of 9/11. "People want to know more about the art of homekeeping," she said. (See related stories, Pages 16 and 42.)

Few people are cutting back on everyday niceties as the economy tries to snap back. "Even though we are in a recession, we've gotten accustomed to nice things and living a certain lifestyle. We may cut back, but not as radically as maybe we should," Ms. Bennett said.

While economic uncertainty prevents consumers from spending with abandon, there is a shift in attitude about materialism, said Zyman Marketing Group founder Sergio Zyman, former chief marketing officer at Coca-Cola Co. "People are saying `Is all this stuff really worth it? Do I really want to have two jobs and try to go for the big BMW? Do I want to [place] the kids with a nanny to capitalize on my stock options?"'

contributing: mercedes m. cardona, alice z. cuneo and jean halliday

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