Futures Co. describes slimmed-down mind-set

J. Walker Smith leads a presentation in Chicago.

The Home Improvement Research Institute's (HIRI's) Fall Conference kicked off Wednesday with an examination of the slimming-down mind-set of the American consumer.

J. Walker Smith, executive chairman of The Futures Co., said that "slimming down" can be best explained quickly by the phrase: "Live large, carry little." But the full story, according to Smith, the charismatic chronicler of consumer trends and HIRI-event regular, is far too complicated for a simple slogan. 

"A slimming down mind-set is defining the aspirational framework with which consumers are approaching the marketplace," Smith said.  

By way of further explanation, he backed up to 2006, when consumers were looking up to what they could buy and become. Fast forward to 2013, the idea is to look down at what to avoid.

During that shift, some positive developments have hit consumers. The birth rate has stabilized, after dropping during the downturn. Car sales are at pre-recession highs.

And the housing market is showing significant improvement, compared with the historic lows. 

But the downturn took its toll on consumer attitudes. Smith pointed to research that shows 59% of people in the middle class are concerned about falling out of the middle class. Also, 88% of respondents defined success as being debt free.

Times are changing, and quickly, he said. Research shows 59% of young people say they would rather have a low-paying job that they like than a high-paying job that they don't like. And a related trend is that of "threshold earners," people who desire to earn just enough money to sustain a simple lifestyle.

"This type of thinking is now on the table," he said. 

More recently, dysfunctional government has emerged for the first time as the number one thing that people worry about. "The mess in Washington is on people's minds," Smith said. "The shutdown is reinforcing in consumer minds as to why they need to bring this sliming-down mind-set with them into the future."

Frugality, meanwhile, is not an aspiration for the American consumer. "We like nice stuff," he said. "But we want to be able to get it without exposing ourselves to the kind of risks that we were obvious to, prior to the downturn."

Translating the analysis to practical takeaways for home improvement marketers, Smith said selling smaller projects, and selling them repeatedly, will be the key to engaging with the new consumer.

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