Human interest stories in local consumer spending

by September 20, 2010

By Flickr user Ollie Crafoord

As business journalists we report and write often about the larger economy and the fortunes of companies and industries.

But nothing beats the human interest stories behind the numbers, and if you haven’t tackled a personal finance or household money story lately, you might want to give it a shot.

Your story could take on one of the many facets of personal finance – earning, saving, investing, borrowing.  For a great jobless story I can’t resist passing along this piece from the Detroit Free Press.  The plight of the 58-year-old worker who optimistically took a buyout right before the recession hit is gut-wrenchingly told with a wealth of detail, right down to the model name of the Harley he thought he could afford.

But with economists keeping fingers crossed for consumer demand to propel us out of a double-dip slump and the all-important annual holiday shopping season dead ahead, I’d focus on spending – or lack thereof.  Talk with householders, go over their receipts, their credit card statements, their check registers and ask them to contrast this year’s spending with comparable records from a couple of years ago.

Any reporter who can weave together a narrative by pinpointing exactly what consumers are willing to give up in tough times (and then trace the effect on the stores/service providers/entertainment venues who find themselves expendable) will have a 1A-worthy package and a well-clicked website.

As this Forbes item points out, the average household is keeping the purse strings tight.  People are buying only what they need, not what they want, and that bodes ill for our hoped-for recovery.

Even behemoth Wal-Mart is out with another forecast for a practical “socks and underwear” Christmas shopping season.

Why the restraint?  You’ve probably already localized the Census Bureau’s Income, Poverty and Health Insurance report, but take time now to dig in behind the headlines.   Median income is flat or dropping as more would-be workers sit on the sidelines.

The Fed reported Friday that Americans lost $1.5 trillion in net worth during the second quarter of the year, largely due to poor performance in the stock markets.  Hardship 401(k) withdrawals are up, foreclosures are still setting records and the lucky few who can unload their property often are doing so at cut-rate prices.  Many “99-weekers” are maxing out on unemployment benefits or facing the end of COBRA subsidies and huge health insurance premiums in the next few months.

Look for some quirky local spending indicators, too.

A former co-worker proudly told me she cut out twice-monthly maid service and chants “$75 saved” while she scrubs her own tub.  What’s the ripple effect of DIY housecleaning on entrepreneurs and commercial maid services?

My grocery store is running cheapskate specials on meal ingredients: Buy a chuck roast and get free carrots,potatoes,onions and gravy, for example.  A far cry from the big half-page filet mignon ads of a few years ago.

I was interviewing special event vendors recently and most told me that while clients aren’t doing without weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and holiday parties, they’re waiting far longer to commit to supplier contracts and venue dates.  In particular, one invitation specialist told me that she’s creating about half to two-thirds the normal number of invitations for any given event – a sign that luxury budgets are pinched.

A company that specializes in DJs said the recession has been good for business, because they can provide an emcee and a playlist for thousands of dollars less than live wedding bands charge.  With holiday social and corporate entertaining coming up, ask local vendors to compare this year’s orders to those from better times, and give nitty-gritty examples of what’s changed.