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    Recession Takes Toll on Public’s Health

    You can add consumers’ understanding of “wellness” to the list of things that have been transformed by the bad economy of the past year.

    By Mark Dolliver

    You can add consumers’ understanding of “wellness” to the list of things that have been transformed by the bad economy of the past year. A study released this month by Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness examines the shift and how it plays out in consumer attitudes toward categories ranging from organic food to skin care products.

    Along with the damage the downturn has done to people’s finances, it has taken a toll on their health as well, according to the survey. Among respondents who said they’ve been affected “a lot” by the economy, 23 percent agreed that “my health is worse” than it was last year. Even among those professing to be affected just “a little” by the downturn, 11 percent said it has changed their health for the worse. (Conducted through social media in late September, the survey had participants in nine countries, though mostly in the United States. And the respondents had a distinctly upper-income skew, with 73 percent making $75,000 a year or more, including 60 percent making at least $100,000.)

    The polling detects some tangible reasons that many respondents believe themselves to be in worse shape than before. Conspicuous among these: 23 percent of those affected a lot by the downturn (and 13 percent of those affected a little) conceded that, compared with last year, they’re “more likely to eat foods ‘I know are bad for me.’” Twenty-one percent of the affected-a-lot cohort and 17 percent of those affected-a-little said they’ve been more likely to eat sweets; 18 percent of the former and 10 percent of the latter have been more apt to load up on carbs. Fifteen percent of the “lots” and 11 percent of the “littles” are “more likely to binge” this year than last.

    Compounding the damage, significant numbers of respondents said they’ve been working out less on their own (25 percent of the affected-a-lots and 12 percent of the affected-a-littles) or at a gym (25 percent and 20 percent). And significant numbers of respondents are also scrimping on medical care. Eighteen percent of the “lots” and 10 percent of the “littles” agreed that “I’m seeing my doctor less”; 19 percent of the “lots” and 8 percent of the “littles” have been “delaying taking care of health problems.”

    In light of such shifts in behavior, it’s not surprising that people have adjusted their underlying notion of what constitutes “wellness.” One part of the survey asked respondents to compare how they define it now with the way they’d have defined it a year ago. Whereas the top two elements of the old wellness were “being healthy” and “feeling good inside [and] out,” the foremost components of the new wellness are “trying to change” and “surviving.”

    And it’s not as though people’s altered understanding of wellness (and the way it informs their consumer behavior) will go away once the economy looks a little healthier. “I don’t think it’s temporary,” says Johanna Skilling, EVP, director of strategic planning at New York-based Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness. “I think we’ve really been shaken up” — not just by the economic meltdown, but also by a string of events of the decade, ranging from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina. “I think it’ll be a long time before we’re reckless again.” She mentions that research has shown people’s faith in institutions at a low ebb, a phenomenon that has given consumers an added sense of responsibility for their own wellness and that of their families.

    It’s not that they’ll never spend on wellness (or other things) again, says Skilling, but they’ll approach it with a different spirit. Skin care goods are a case in point. Forty-one percent of those affected a lot by the economy said they’re now less likely to buy “luxury or high-end skin care products,” as did 27 percent of those affected a little by the downturn. Thirty-eight percent of the former and 28 percent of the latter said they’re less likely to buy “luxury or high-end soaps.”

    When asked whether this means there’s now pent-up demand for such goods, Skilling responds, “I think there’s a pent-up demand for showing we’re smart.” People will buy skin care products, but she expects they’ll gravitate toward the more economical drug store goods rather than the pricy department store brands. “I think people are going to say to themselves, ‘Yeah, this is good enough,’” she says. “And they’ll feel smarter for not spending $100 on something.”

    Being smarter as consumers is something people now put a premium on as they cope with the continuing recession. In their revised approach to wellness, Skilling suggests, people aren’t so much beaten down as smartened up in their behavior as consumers. “I think a lot of it is about comfort and what you do about stress,” she says. And it isn’t simply a matter of adopting austerities in one’s shopping: “It’s not about self-denial, it’s about making smart choices for the people you care about.”

    This shows up in consumers’ approach to organic foods. While that sector had been growing before the recession struck, the survey found 25 percent of the affected-a-lots and 15 percent of the affected-a-littles saying they’ve been less inclined to buy organic food than a year ago. Skilling relates this to a current tendency on consumers’ part to focus on specific products where they feel the benefits of organics are most significant, rather than just buying organics indiscriminately.

    The survey’s findings suggest that people are more comfortable about revising their approach to wellness if the economy isn’t imposing too many such choices on them. When asked to compare their “emotional health” now with its condition a year ago, 28 percent of those affected a lot by the economy said it’s better, vs. 35 percent saying it’s worse. (The rest said it’s unchanged.) The pattern was reversed among those saying they’ve been affected a little by the economy, with 33 percent saying their emotional health is better and 15 percent saying it’s worse.

    - Nielsen Business Media

    By Mark Dolliver
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