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The weak economy could use a little mothering as it struggles to recover. But new reports on the consumer behavior of American mothers suggest marketers had better not count on free-and-easy spending by this crucial constituency. Polling finds mothers are making careful spending a part of their long-term routine as they shun inessential purchases.
In a report released last month by Watertown, Mass.-based Allen & Gerritsen, 45 percent of mothers surveyed said they’ve “completely eliminated anything they don’t feel is absolutely necessary from their lives,” while another 29 percent “have been findings ways to downgrade and cut back on their spending in response to the current economic climate.”
Meanwhile, another indication of mothers’ focus on saving money comes from a new Prospectiv survey of women: Three-quarters of its mothers (vs. about six in 10 of its non-mothers) said they “redeem the discounts, coupons and offers [they’ve] found or received online,” either “at least once a month” (40 percent) or “at least once a week” (35 percent).
While finding a wide-ranging commitment to saving money, the Allen & Gerritsen report detects some generational differences. The polling’s Gen Y mothers (age 18-30) were the most reluctant “to entirely give up any of the nonessential comforts and activities they enjoy.” Thirty-seven percent of the Gen Yers claimed to be completely eliminating outlays on non-necessities, vs. 45 percent of Gen Xers (age 31-44) and 54 percent of baby-boomer mothers (age 45-64). Likewise, 20 percent of the Gen Yers said they’d “returned to their pre-recession spending habits,” vs. 18 percent of the Gen Xers and 13 percent of the boomers.
Lesley Solomon, SVP of marketing at Wakefield, Mass.-based Prospectiv, predicts that a return to pre-recession shopping habits will remain more the exception than the rule for mothers. And it’s not simply a matter of having been chastened by the downturn. The recession has also given mothers (and others) some pragmatic education. “Mothers have learned how to save,” Solomon points out. “They know how to do it now.” And, having mastered the techniques of downloading coupons, finding discounts, watching for sales and so on -- to a degree that wasn’t true before the recession forced them to economize -- mothers will still want to get good value for their money even when an economic recovery means they needn’t watch their pennies so closely. After all, a continued reduction in spending won’t necessarily feel to mothers like a reduction in standard of living when they know how to get more value for their money.
“Now that consumers have learned there are easy ways to save, they’ll be more likely to go beyond the brands they’ve been most loyal to so they can get the savings,” says Solomon. And the brands that have commanded their loyalty can strengthen it by offering savings of their own. Either way, offering ways for mothers to save isn’t just a one-off matter of boosting sales at the moment. “We think saving is a long-term, sustainable trend, and offering coupons and discounts is a way of creating a relationship with mothers,” says Solomon. Such practices are “an open door” for brands intent on connecting with mothers and other consumers, she adds.
Indeed, saving money has become a source of positive satisfaction for mothers, and not merely a fiscal necessity. “We boast about our savings these days," says Solomon. If a woman gets a compliment on a new dress, Solomon remarks, she’s glad to say she got it at TJ Maxx rather than at some pricy store. “Saving is the new black,” she adds. “It’s cool to save.” Such savings are particularly important (and particularly visible) to mothers, since their role as primary household shopper means buying certain items repeatedly. “As a mom, you have to buy the same things over and over again,” says Solomon, “so it kills you to be paying full retail when you know there are discounts out there.”
None of this means mothers en masse are relieved that the recession came along to liberate them from their past excesses as consumers. “Today’s economic and cultural climate is still inspiring too much anxiety for consumers to feel ‘relief’ related to the recession and how it’s affected their spending,” says Andrew Graff, Allen & Gerritsen’s CEO. “Moms who look back at their old ways of spending and think, ‘I can't believe how wasteful that was’ feel good about their new spending habits, and many intend to keep it up. But I don’t think many are ‘relieved’ about the hard lessons and harsh realities that led them there. And with unemployment continuing to rise, some moms making spending cuts are still planning for the worst.”
In the climate Graff describes, mothers remain intent on focusing the buying power they do have on necessities and avoiding unnecessary expenditures. The complicating factor is that different consumers have different notions of what constitutes a necessity. A detail from the Allen & Gerritsen report is revealing in this regard: “When we reached out to moms and asked them to submit photos and explanations of what’s most necessary in their lives even in a time of recession, many responded with photos of their smartphones and laptops.”
The same report’s polling (conducted in May) gives a further indication that the definition of “necessity” can be elastic. Seventy percent of its mothers put cable-TV programming in that category. Sixty-three percent said the same about “going out to restaurants and bars,” matching the number who deemed “buying new clothes or accessories” a necessity. Fifty-one percent classified movie rentals among modern-day life’s essentials.
Here again, generational differences come into play. For example, the poll’s Gen Y mothers were the most likely to be buying new communications technology, with 43 percent viewing this as “necessary spending,” vs. 35 percent of mothers overall. Gen X mothers reported an above-average propensity to go to the movie theater (44 percent, vs. 38 percent of mothers in general). Boomer mothers were the most likely to be hanging on to magazine and newspaper subscriptions (43 percent, vs. 39 percent of mothers overall). Conversely, the boomer mothers were the least likely to regard entertainment technology as a necessary expenditure, with 29 percent viewing it in that light, vs. 31 percent of Gen X and 36 percent of Gen Y mothers.
Graff offers an explanation of why the Gen Y mothers have been less resolute than other mothers in paring their expenditures. “One thing we know about Gen Y is that they value work/life balance more than any generation that’s come before them,” he says. “And they’re driven to get as much out of their out-of-work free time as possible. That usually means spending money on more than just the bare necessities -- a night out at a nice restaurant, catching a movie with friends or taking a family vacation. Gen Ys want the ‘life’ portion of their work/life balance to be as full as possible, which oftentimes means spending on the little luxuries that other generations have decided to go without.”
Regardless of generational cohort, mothers are subject to a buying influence that doesn’t affect (or afflict) non-parents: The pestering of children who want Mom to buy them things. And this can mean a gap in the inclination to buy for oneself vs. buying for one’s children. “Moms always want to protect their children from harsh, real-world realities,” notes Catherine Sheehan, audience intelligence planner at Allen & Gerritsen. “When they can afford it, they’ll try to shield their children from this recession as best they can by purchasing toys, games and other small nice-to-haves to make everything seem normal.”
The severity of the current downturn -- and uncertainty about the economy’s future -- leaves little leeway for mothers to shield their kids in this way and still treat themselves. “When it comes to spending money on themselves, the vast majority of moms will stick to buying what they need and say ‘no’ to the more luxurious temptations they used to allow themselves,” says Sheehan, “even once it seems the economy has finally recovered.”
In their efforts to make the most of their money, mothers are also more willing to put up with what other people might regard as intrusions. One question in the Prospectiv polling (fielded last month) asked women how they feel about offers they encounter online for discounts or coupons. Mothers were much more likely than non-mothers (52 percent vs. 36 percent) to say they “don’t mind as long as the products interest me.” And the mothers were much less likely than the non-mothers to say they “skip the offers and proceed to the next page” (15 percent vs. 25 percent). The same pattern was evident in their reaction to e-mail marketing.
Why are mothers more open to such marketing messages? Solomon suggests it relates to their role as shopper-in-chief for a whole household and not just for themselves. “Moms are making decisions that don’t just affect them,” she says, “so they need as much information as possible.” By the same token, Prospectiv’s polling finds mothers more willing than non-mothers to provide personal information to marketers in return for coupons or other opportunities to save. The mothers were less apt than the non-mothers to say they’re “reluctant to share information” (30 percent vs. 36 percent), and more apt to say that it “depends what I get in return” (30 percent vs. 25 percent).