The Great Escape — Consumer Style

Simple pleasures, from exercise to gardening and movies, are in vogue.

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The simple pleasures are in vogue as consumers perform triage on their spending habits.

As the anxiety index rises, many are turning to chocolate, quarter-pounders, gym memberships — presumably to work off the chocolate and the quarter-pounders — gardening, sewing and the movies for relief to help treat wounded psyches. The trend has been set in motion as luxury and moderate stores, among others, take big hits.

“There is definitely one collective mind-set across all consumers at the moment: People want to control the things in their lives that they can control,” said Phil Rist, executive vice president, Strategic Initiatives at BIGresearch, a consumer and retail research firm based in Worthington, Ohio. “That’s why you’re seeing upticks in escapes, such as going to the movies, or indulgences in comfort food. Consumers of all ages and income levels are being bombarded with so much change with the economy, gas prices, etc., that they feel out of control, not in charge of their lives. They will be drawn into more of those things that they can be in charge of.”

In addition, cutting back on Internet use, cell phones and cable TV doesn’t seem to be on the radar in an era of instant communication and information.

“We’re noticing that consumers are getting rid of their redundant services,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst and president of The Enderle Group, a technology advisory firm based in San Jose, Calif. “So if someone has both a landline phone and a cell phone, they will choose the cell phone and dump the home connection. They’re holding onto these things because they consider them to be items they cannot live without.”

Consumers depend on the Internet to “job search, or to just stay connected,” he said. “People still want to feel good, and watching cable TV and being on the Internet are things you can do at home — inexpensively.”

Along with higher movie box office revenue, DVD rentals are robust and discounts have a certain cool factor.

“Bargain hunting is fashionable again,” Rist said. “It’s now a badge of honor to say you purchased something at a discount. People will brag about how little they paid for an item, versus five years ago, when it was all about how much they paid.”

Although opportunities abound for those looking to save a buck, “millions of consumers have literally lost their entire incomes,” said Michael Solomon, professor of marketing and director of the Center for Consumer Research at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “And those who aren’t directly affected by the recession — the ones who haven’t lost their jobs — are still being affected by what they’re reading and seeing on TV everyday. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

How to cope? Heading to the gym is gaining in popularity.

U.S. health club membership increased 1.7 percent last year, said Rosemary Lavery, a spokeswoman for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association.

“Gym members with existing memberships are using them, even more so, to get the most value and justify the price,” she also said. “Numerous studies that show people who work out are happier.” Club owners and operators are “saying to their members, ‘We know it’s tough, but you can’t compromise your health.’”

New York-based Equinox Fitness Clubs has seen a spike in daily visits. “Our usage is up almost 20 percent since November,” said spokeswoman Judy Taylor.

Exercise and comfort food aren’t mutually exclusive, however, especially in a down economy.

McDonald’s Corp. said global same-store sales grew 1.4 percent in February and U.S. same-store sales increased 2.8 percent. With customers more cost-conscious than ever, the company said the boost came partly on its chicken offerings and core menu items like the Quarter Pounder, and beverages and breakfast products.

Chocolate-makers are reaping benefits, too. U.S. retail sales of chocolate confections grew 2.3 percent to $15.9 billion last year, the National Confectioners Association said.

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