It’s Not Consumer Schizophrenia … Just a Little Conscious Recklessness

Okay. I admit it. I went a little overboard in December. And it looks like I am not the only one. Online holiday shopping reached an all-time high and sales for apparel and high-end restaurants, food stores and other retailers were also up year after year. So I guess I am in good company.

But was this consumer spending splurge a harbinger of more optimistic and free-wheeling times ahead? Or was it merely a blip, a much needed pressure release from months—or years at this point—of tightening belts and stretching our paychecks?

Recent reports show that consumer confidence actually sank in December and characterize the uptick in spending as “schizophrenic.” But I see method in this madness. Around this time last year Communispace released a report (Eyes Wide Open, Wallet Half Shut, written in partnership with Ogilvy Chicago) that described how consumers were changing their spending habits in meaningful ways. We re-ran the survey just over a month ago and found people to be pretty much in the same place—78% of people said they did not think the recession was over and, looking toward 2011, people were planning to continue exercising caution—conserving resources, sticking to their budgets and being mindful and deliberate about how and when to spend money.

So while it may be tempting to view consumers’ holiday spending as an aberration or poor impulse control, I see it as all part of a bigger, more thoughtful plan. As we described in the original Eyes Wide Open report, the urge to splurge has certainly been tempered with the recession, but it is still alive and well in a more mindful form. We called this behavior “conscious recklessness,” which is when one budgets for and gives one’s self permission to go a little crazy. For myself, I know I had been looking forward to (and had been planning on) rewarding myself with a shopping trip for months and months. And for now I guess I am satisfied (and kind of broke … yup). And going forward, with other U.S. consumers, I am reinstating my post-recession, circumspect approach to spending. But I am also keeping an eye out for that next really great sale; if the deal is sweet enough (and my budget can sustain it) I may give myself permission to indulge again.

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