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What now?

Jennifer Negley -- Home Textiles Today, September 24, 2001

Within 48 hours of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, economists were on the air warning that the event would almost surely push the slow-growth economy into recession.

As if the anxiety level weren't high enough, we were quickly treated to a series of distressing prognostications for the country's economic health: the devastation of the airline and insurance industries, the prospect of even more layoffs, and increased wariness among consumers in the face of a protracted military campaign.

Early last week, consumer research firm RoperASW released an outlook statement of sorts, drawing on its 30 years of consumer polling data to examine the question of what life will be like now for consumers.

Feelings of connectedness will rise, Roper said. Anecdotal evidence to support this point abounds — from the rapid sell-out of American flags across the country to nationwide candle vigils to the flowers heaped in front of New York City firehouses.

Roper noted that in 1990-91, in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war, the number of Americans who considered patriotism "in" shot up to 83 percent. The firm suggested that businesses step up their efforts to show themselves as community minded, noting that consumers value that kind of thing even in the best of times.

"Seven in 10 Americans consistently agree strongly that 'business should consider what is good for society, not just what is good for profits,' " Roper stated. "Most Americans think businesses should be good citizens in their community and improve 'quality of life' in the society. In extraordinary times such as these it is going to be even more important."

In terms of consumers' feelings about the economy, Roper pointed out that Americans over the past year have already shifted from the much ballyhooed irrational exuberance of the late '90s into a "back to basics" mood that characterized the early '90s, "when hard work and savvy were more important for getting ahead than what stocks you owned." Although Americans' confidence in themselves (not to be confused with the Commerce Board's Consumer Confidence Index) had been on the decline, it remained strong. In July, 68 percent of consumers told Roper researchers they were optimistic about their personal future, down just slightly from 69 percent to 73 percent in the 1999-2000 period.

Of course, the situation has changed considerably since, and using history as a guide, Roper predicts that consumer confidence will drop further.

"For now, it is clear we have entered a period of uncertainty and volatility. Business strategies will have to be adjusted, then readjusted, to conform to changing events in the world … Americans are going to be distracted," Roper said.

There is an upside to all of this. "History suggests that Americans will surprise themselves," Roper noted, "with their resilience, strength and courage."

In the months to come, business will be required to show similar resilience, strength and courage. It's an enormous task to face, but also one that cannot be avoided. The fact that the home textiles industry had already begun to rethink, restructure and streamline may ultimately work to its benefit in the times to come, when the ability to react swiftly and decisively will become paramount.

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