Affluent Turn Cautious in Outlook for Personal Spending and the Economy

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The Affluent Market Tracking Study #8, the just released Fall 2005 report in a continuing series of twice-yearly surveys by The American Affluence Research Center (AARC), reveals several important changes in the 12- month economic outlook and spending plans of the wealthiest 10% of Americans, the 11 million households representing about half of all consumer income and spending and a third of the total US economy.

While the affluent still have a somewhat positive outlook toward current business conditions, their outlook for future economic conditions is now neutral. This may reflect concern about the potential negative economic consequences of the Gulf coast hurricanes (risk of increased inflation, higher interest rates, and a recession) that dominated the news media in September, when the survey was conducted.

The affluent are far less positive than they were six months ago, continuing a decline that began in Spring 2004 after reaching a record high in the Fall 2003 survey. The composite Affluent Consumer Expectations (ACE) index for economic conditions 12 months from now had set a record low this past spring at 116 and has now dropped further to the neutral level of 100.

The affluent also indicated modest declines in their plans for major purchases and their expected changes in spending for 17 different products and services. Their projected $57 billion in expenditures for holiday gifts (25% of the estimated total holiday gift market) is 1.6% below 2004 spending levels. This contrasts with a 5% increase projected in an early October survey of the total adult population for the National Retail Federation.

There is some indication of a reduction in the plans for major expenditures in the next 12 months, with 44% of respondents reporting no such plans. Plans for home remodeling, cruises, and acquisition of vacation residences declined from their Spring 2005 record highs. Plans to acquire motor vehicles and boats showed slight increases, while plans to purchase an existing home as a primary residence increased to a record high.

The AARC surveys track spending plans over the next 12 months for 17 categories of goods and services, including major appliances, home computers, furniture/furnishings, entertainment equipment, casual and upscale dining out, entertainment, recreation, domestic and international travel, designer and non-designer apparel, collectibles, fine jewelry, and political and charitable contributions.

Of the 17 future spending indexes, only four are at positive levels. Of the 13 categories with negative indexes, 11 declined from their Spring 2005 level. The Future Spending Index average (91.8) is at its lowest level since tracking began in Fall 2003.

Approximately two-thirds of the respondents expect to spend the same amount for holiday gifts this year as last year. The number who expect to spend “less” (21%) this year is about double the number who expect to spend “more” (11%).

This information is based on a national survey of 448 men and women in the wealthiest 10% of American households. The survey participants have an average income of $308,000 and an average net worth of $2.7 million. The survey has a 5% margin of error at the 95% confidence level. Highlights of the survey can be found at the AARC website

Ron Kurtz is a principal of The American Affluence Research Center and The Management Resource Group. Both companies provide marketing research and strategic planning services to prominent clients in the travel and hospitality industries, especially those targeting the affluent market.

Prior to founding MRG in 1989, Ron’s experience included over 20 years in senior management positions in the airline, hotel, and tour business. As the founding President of Sea Goddess Cruises, he created the product category of small deluxe ships for the very affluent. He also served as the chief marketing officer of four cruise lines, including Norwegian Cruise Line and Windstar Cruises.

Ron has been a key contributor to 6 start ups and 11 turnarounds of substantial businesses. He earned his MBA at Harvard Business School.

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