Analysis: Women fight back against recession

A new study by Farm Communications has revealed that women are fighting to maintain their lifestyle amid economic distress.

Popular opinion tells us that people trade down during recession: choosing own-label instead of branded beans; a ‘staycation’ not an exotic vacation; dining in rather than out. And economic indicators show a depressing downward trend: the Consumer Confidence Index has hit rock bottom[1]. All of which would lead us to believe that people are becoming savvier shoppers and spending less.

But surprisingly, this is not the whole story. Why are lipstick sales up 29%[2]? Why are some retailers floundering while others remain buoyant? And why do women influence this more than you might think?

We polled our online community of women, with intriguing results.

This is what they told us.

Can’t give up, won’t give up

A whopping 97% of women told us there is always one product or service on which they will not compromise, no matter what.

What this is will depend on tastes, lifestyle and circumstances, but one thing is certain: it will have a high emotional value attached to it. For 8% of women, it is quality clothes and shoes. For 16%, hair and beauty comes first. As one woman exclaimed: “Getting my hair done! I always go to Toni and Guy even though it is expensive.” Another commented: “My skincare. I will scrimp and save elsewhere, but my lotions and potions are something I enjoy purchasing, and enjoy using.” The ‘lipstick index’ is a phenomenon observed by Estée Lauder: that in times of economic difficulty, women treat themselves to a lipstick when that designer bag or other extravagance seems out of reach. Well, sales are rocketing. A colourful lipstick can give a woman confidence and a sense of ‘beating the grey’.

28% of women pride themselves on buying high quality food for themselves and their family: “I refuse to buy cheap food and have stuck to buying organic locally sourced foods, because I feel it’s essential to my wellbeing”.

9% will not give up brands they trust: “Tea – always PG Tips. I never compromise on that. I would rather go without or drive any amount of miles to get some.” Many women spontaneously mentioned brands like Heinz, Tetley’s, Kellogg’s – emblems of taste and stability – proving that a strong brand commands loyalty even in the face of trading down in almost every other area.

For others, its higher value purchases such as holidays, “I always put aside money every month. So I can go on the holiday I want to go on. That comes first.”

Even in instances where women are changing their habits because of recession, a sense of maintaining standards is evident: “If you’re staying in, you’ll buy yourself a steak, a really nice bottle of wine, and you’ll spend as much staying in as you would going out.”

Be it through the brands women identify with or the food they put in their cupboard, upholding certain standards is a show of strength and security – and in times of increasing stress, women need both now more than ever.

Stress forces a polarised reaction: fight or flight

We asked women what recession really means to them. Words like ‘nervous’, ‘avoidance’ and ‘scaremongering’ topped the list. Much has been reported about increasing stress during recession. But how does this actually impact women’s behaviour?

We know from basic evolutionary physiology that when under extreme stress, the body has a quite specific response. In a moment of perceived danger, the body prepares to do one of two things: face up to its enemy and fight, or run as fast as it can.

And women are defiantly fighting.

With no sabre-tooths poised to attack, fight becomes about standing up for herself and her right to live as she wishes. For some this might be expensive holidays, for others simply being able to buy their favourite patterned toilet paper. It’s about resolving to feel good no matter what, putting wellbeing above the rational approach to recession: to cut back: “I tell myself I’ll spend less next week – but I never do”. Why? Because ‘fight’ is a much more powerful driver than reason – it’s emotional, instinctual, primal.

Welcome to the age of extremes

Because of this polarised behaviour, we are seeing brands and retailers at opposite ends of the spectrum winning (Waitrose and Lidl, Burberry and Primark) over those that occupy the middle ground (Habitat, Jane Norman). Volvo’s latest ad campaign tries to address this. ‘Economical Luxury’ – once an oxymoron – is blazoned in big capitals across a billboard. Volvo understand that women want to save – but they want luxury more.

When you look for extremes, you begin to see them everywhere. The ‘colossal’ gap between rich and poor.[3] Supersize vs Superskinny. As one woman put it: “I have a split personality.” We live in an age of extremes, where, despite the worst economic circumstances in a generation, women are not willing to compromise on the things that make them feel good.

Indeed, in the age of extremes, women will fight for what they want.


[1] The nationwide Consumer Confidence Index hit a low of 73 points, compared to the long run average of 90 (August 2011)

[2] Source: The NPD Group (March 2009)

[3] Source: Government Equalities Office, 2010

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