Percentage of U.S. adults 18 years and over on a base population of 47 million. The lower tier of the affluent is growing, while the upper tier is decreasing. (chart) REACHING THE RICH WHEN WEALTH IS A STATE OF MIND

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If marketers have learned one thing about consumers of the '90s, it's that frugality has become firmly entrenched in their buying patterns. In place of the freewheeling spending patterns of the last decade, shoppers have pared back.

While that mindset shows no signs of abating next year in the general population, there's one group that offers promise to marketers: higher-income consumers.

The wealthy aren't a growing market per se-U.S. Census Bureau studies of wealth report the median net worth of people in the top 20% of households dropped to $123,166 in 1991 (the most current study available) from $129,653 in 1988.

But there is growth among what some researchers call the "selectively affluent:" consumers whose incomes may not qualify them for entrance into exclusive country clubs or gated communities but who are in possession of an affluent mindset and enough discretionary income to cover their wants as well as their needs.

These people may indulge in luxuries, such as an expensive car, jewelry or vacations, but not all of them at the same time.

Also, they're spending more than the average consumer on everyday items.

According to NPD Group, growth in spending by households with annual incomes of $70,000 or more is outpacing spending growth among the population as a whole for many marketing segments.

Comprising just 13% of the U.S. population, consumers in that income group accounted for 17% of dollars spent on apparel in 1993, up from 14% in 1991, and 17% of dollars spent on athletic footwear, again up from 14% two years ago.

They spent more on toys than the average consumer, the research company reports, and in general spend more on food, too-at both grocery stores and restaurants.

"The wealthy is a large group these days," says Laurel Cutler, worldwide director of marketing planning, Foote, Cone & Belding, New York.

But "wealth" is a difficult concept to define, so it's important for marketers to look beyond income and assets, which paint only a small part of the picture.

"It's not a matter of simple demographics anymore," says Marilyn Nichols, VP-research on the DeBeers Consolidated Mines account at agency N W Ayer & Partners, New York. "The imagery of affluence is easy to recognize but difficult to define."

For marketers, the real potential is among what Ira Mayer, publisher of the Research Alert newsletter, calls consumers with "wealth of mind."

"You can make $50,000 and be quite affluent," says Elissa Pellizzon, director of financial services, sales and marketing at Claritas Inc.

For example, gays often are considered to be an "affluent" target market. But the average household income in the gay community is not that far off that of the heterosexual population, according to a Yankelovich Partners study released earlier this year.

For the gay men in the Yankelovich survey, the mean household income was $37,400, compared with $39,300 for heterosexual men; for lesbians, it was $34,800, compared with $34,400 for heterosexual women.

But many gay and lesbians can be considered selectively affluent.

Mr. Mayer notes that though gay incomes "are not as high as assumed, they have no families so they have more discretionary income."

Many ethnic groups fall into the growing group of selectively affluent consumers, too.

Asian-Americans, for example, have moved upscale in a single generation and now have a higher average income than the average U.S. consumer (see story on Page S-2).

Other immigrant groups making it into the U.S. upper economic strata include Indians, Filipinos and Koreans. Of Hispanics, Cubans tend to have the most wealth, according to Ms. Cutler.

"Newly empty nesters" are a good target for marketers trying to reach consumers who have affluent lifestyles. They "have the most discretionary income. They have wonderful freedom and grown-up children. They are in the mindset toward pleasure," says Ms. Nichols.

The "selectively affluent" market will grow even more in the next few years as baby boomers get older.

"The first wave of the 76 million babies born from 1947 to 1960 is approaching middle age and now [accounts for] one of four affluent Americans," says Jerry Ohlsten, marketing director, Simmons Market Research Bureau. "That will peak in the next 10 years."M


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