||Consumers Holding On to Products Longer
Throw away the cellphone after two years? Not so fast. Ditch the flat-panel TV for an even thinner model? Maybe next year. Replace the blouse with the hole? Darn it!
Consumer spending has picked up, but for some Americans the recession has left something behind: a greater interest in making stuff last.
For a number of products -- cars, phones, computers, even shampoo and toothpaste -- the data shows a slowing of product life cycles and consumption. In many cases the difference is mere months, but economists and consumers say the approach just may outlast a full recovery and the return of easy credit, because of the strong impression the downturn made on consumers.
It is hardly the stuff of generations past, those stung by the Great Depression, who held onto antediluvian dishware and stored canned goods until rust formed on the lids. But for the moment, many citizens of a throwaway society are making fewer visits to the trash and recycling bins.
In the case of Patti Hauseman of Brooklyn, that meant sticking with a five-year-old Apple computer until it started making odd whirring noises and occasionally malfunctioning. She and her boyfriend bought a new computer for Christmas -- actually, a refurbished one.
"A week later, the old one died. We timed it pretty well," Ms. Hauseman said with a laugh. Her cautious approach applies to other products: She is holding out on upgrading two seven-year-old tube-type TVs, and has taken to mending clothes rather than replacing them.
Ms. Hauseman, 41, a general manager of an independent record label, said this mentality was the product of several factors, including bills that have swelled more quickly than her income. She said it was not so much that she could not afford new things, but that the last few years of economic turmoil had left her feeling that she could be stealing from her future by throwing away goods that still had value.
"I've started upgrading for necessity, not vanity," she said, adding that to do otherwise "just does feel wasteful."
Whether a broad, long-term shift in consumer habits is underway is a question tickling economists and analysts. Some insist that, as with the Depression, the recent downturn has made a lingering impression on how people view the propriety of, say, stuffing a still-working cellphone into a desk drawer in favor of a newer model.
But other experts and historians argue that as spending and credit return, so will yearnings to favor brands, fashion and novelty over practicality.
With some products, the upgrade cycle is actually accelerating. According to NPD, a market research firm, consumers in 2010 reported spending more to upgrade major kitchen appliances like refrigerators than they did in 2008 or 2009, when such spending fell. The firm found similar trends at work in smaller kitchen and personal care appliances.
In the case of televisions, upgrades have slowed, but only because so many people snapped up flat-panel sets in recent years. There is now a lull in the product cycle, but not necessarily in consumer demand.
Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, said it was simply too soon to tell whether economic recovery would bring back a more disposable society. "There aren't enough aggregate statistics since the crash for us to know," he said.
But in some important categories there are indications of slowed upgrades. Consumers are holding onto new cars for a record 63.9 months, up 4.5 months from a year ago and 14 percent since the end of 2008, according to Polk, a research firm. In fact, the firm said, when used cars are included, the average length of car ownership stands at 52.2 months, also a record.
Industry analysts also report that people on average upgrade their cellphones every 18 months, up from every 16 months just a few years ago. They hold onto their laptops an average of 4 years and 4 months, a month longer than they did a year ago, though that figure has been creeping up since 2000.
And consumers are making sure to get the last drop from their household products, said Ali Dibadj, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein who covers big companies like Colgate-Palmolive and Clorox.
"People are squeezing the last bit out of the shampoo. They seem to be adding more water to really squeeze out the last bit," Mr. Dibadj said, noting financial reports from major companies showing frugality with things like razor blades, laundry detergent and toothpaste. "Consumers are doing their best to conserve -- we're seeing it again and again and again."
Nancy F. Koehn, a professor at the Harvard Business School and a historian of consumer behavior, said she would bet her boot collection that the change was, if not permanent, at least lasting. She said it stemmed not just from a shaky economy but also from a sense that great institutions -- like government and major corporations -- might not be reliable saviors in a crisis.
"We're not going back to a time of our grandmothers' tales of what they kept and how they used things so carefully. But we'll see a consistent inching or trudging towards that," Professor Koehn said. "It's a glimmer of that, a flickering of it."
For Walt Truelson, a management consultant in Portland, Ore., that has meant a shift in his lifelong love affair with cars, specifically Jaguars. He typically bought a new or slightly used one every year or two, but has had his current car, a 1999 model in dark green, for four years. "It's going to stay in my possession as long as it runs," he said.
Mr. Truelson, who declined to give his age because he said he acts much younger than he is, also switched 18 months ago to paying for cellphone minutes as he uses them, rather than subscribing to an expensive monthly plan.
He said the changes reflect in part the fact that his business fell with the economy, but also what he says is a reassessment of the need to constantly have new things: "It's a question of shifting values."
In a few cases, consumers who are inclined to discard less are getting some positive reinforcement from an unlikely corner: companies that profit from upgrades.
Levi Strauss is telling customers to take steps that will actually lead them to buy fewer pairs of jeans. The Levi's sustainability campaign urges customers to wash their jeans less often and in cold water, a move that the company says reduces water use.
"And they absolutely will last longer," said Michael Kobori, vice president for social and environmental sustainability at Levi's. He said the message was part of building trust with consumers and emphasizing the durability of the company's products.
When it comes to holding onto clothing, Genevieve Tung, 28, needs no campaign to motivate her. She has recently mended ripped socks and pants, sewn buttons onto jackets and gone to great lengths to save a peach silk blouse stained by soy sauce.
"I tried several home remedies involving dishwashing detergent and baking soda, and had it dry-cleaned twice," she said. "I bought fabric dye I'm going to cook on the stove and hope the dark color dye will blend in."
Ms. Tung, who lives in Brooklyn, recently left a corporate law job to go back to school, a move that curtailed her income. She is also worried about relying over the long term on the pension of her husband, a New York City paramedic, given how unreliable pensions seem.
She says there are other motivations too: "Personally, avoiding waste and using things until they're used up seems like a common-sense way to live."
(Source: The New York Times, 02/25/11)
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