Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Here’s good economic news!

OK, I may be a pie-eyed Pollyanna, but I think the worst of the recession is behind us.

No, wait! Don’t roll your eyes and groan. I know it’s still bad. Really bad, in fact. But listen to this: there are signs of uplift everywhere.

This is the tell: Men are buying underwear again! I mean, how about it, Ladies? No less an oracle that former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan is excited about this hidden economic indicator. And no, I don’t know if he gets excited about boxers or briefs. But I digress.

There’s an honest-to-God “Men’s Underwear Index” (aka MUI for government acronym geeks) that those secretive bean counters keep to themselves.

There are some things that are better kept to yourself, and I think the attire studied in the MUI is one of them. Just look at teenage gangsta wanna-bes. Their MUI is showing plenty! If it weren’t for these kids and their multi-hued boxers, the MUI would have been drastically lower. Lower like their pants. Think about it: MUI as a leading economic indicator AND hip hop fashion statement. Hmmm. As soon as the kids realize their importance to global economic mental health, this fad will fade.

Anyway, the MUI works like this: in good times, underwear sales are stable. Men (or their wives) buy new product when they need it. A pair here…a pair there. Christmas. Anniversaries. Birthdays. You know the drill. It’s a necessity and nothing more. There is no emotional cost in buying that itty bitty brief, though there may be some significant delusion at work.

But during times of severe financial stress, men try to stretch a bit more life out of the old undies. Tide and Clorox sales are probably up as a result; rag bags everywhere are feeling the pinch. Hospital technicians and doctors offices were not queried for background on this subject. But I wander off point again.

Since 2003 when the Men’s Underwear Index was established, sales rose incrementally every year—until 2008. Sales dropped a gut-wrenching 3.7% in 2008 and slipped another 2.3% in 2009 so far. But suddenly that negative territory is nudging upwards like a wedgie at summer camp.

Retailers agree that sales are recovering, and add that 66 percent of shoppers are buying the more economic multi-pair bulk packs. “People need underwear,” says an online retailer of said stuff. “They have just have less money to spend.”

And that’s the word from MUI. When men start buying briefs again, can recovery be far behind?

FYI: I’ve withheld info that I’m sure you’re desperate to know: men buy an average of 3.4 pairs of underwear a year.

Now more uplifting news: women’s bra sales have not slowed as severely, thanks to those Victoria Secrets models, no doubt! (Remember: men buy a huge percentage of women’s underwear.) You think the men may have some ulterior motive? After all, benefits of a sexy bra can outlast any dinner-and-a-girl-movie.

However, Estee Lauder reports that sales of lipstick have plummeted by 8%, which is even worse than the MUI decline. Since men—OK, most men—don’t buy lipstick, this is truly an economic indicator of some significance. I guess Sarah Palin’s pigs are on a budget, too. And why would her jobless hockey moms stuck at home with the kids want to get all gussied up anyway? Go figure.

The jury is still out on the sales of prescription anti-depressants and sleep aids as an indicator of our communal fragile state of mind. But I’m sure someone somewhere (Nurse Jackie, where are you?) is rummaging through the nation’s medical cabinet for evidence even as I type.

But back to underwear.

I conclude with a statement from Marshal Cohen, senior analyst with the consumer research firm NPB Group as quoted in The Washington Post on August 31st: “Consumers may be down, but they’re not out,” he says. “If this were a true, deep, long, embedded recession, they wouldn’t even be buying underwear.”

And that’s really good news. I’ve cut down on so many meals in the last 2 years that my old, ratty underwear is way too large now, but I’ve put off replacing it.

I’m feeling better about life again. It’s time for a little pick-me-upper. The bra shop is calling. But I won’t bring my Visa. I don’t feel that good, yet.

See you at the mall!

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