Who is the new American consumer?

Jack Cotton has witnessed an unusual response from homeowners on Cape Cod to the events of Sept. 11: They're tearing out new decor and redecorating.

Mr. Cotton, owner of Cotton Real Estate in Osterville, Mass., says several families have abruptly altered the look of their summer homes.

"People who have just finished redecorating their houses are ripping it out and putting in this whole comfort feeling," says Cotton. "They're getting rid of fancy stuff and using washed cotton ... maybe because they feel a bit guilty about their wealth."

A certain irony may attend the notion of spending more in order to appear to have spent less. But the story illustrates a trend: Consumers across the country are reshaping their priorities.

The question is: For how long?

Some of life's indulgences may seem out of place in an America still reeling from September's acts of terror. But the new tone of consumer hesitancy began to set in even before the attacks.

The harsh reminder of stock-market fallibility, an apparent decline in consumer confidence, even an uptick in personal savings all developed many months ago. Sometime last winter, experts say, many Americans began to flinch at the extravagance of gas-inhaling SUVs and 4,000-square-foot "McMansions" that seemed to characterize 1990s consumer culture.

But terrorism has accelerated the backlash. Americans are generally looking inward. Divorces are down, church attendance has soared, discussion of family, faith, and things that really matter are common, all bespeaking a significant value shift in American culture.

The change in attitudes was reinforced last month when retail sales dropped 2.4 percent, the largest decline in nearly 10 years. Some observers say that much of the drop simply resulted from consumers staying home to watch television - that a lasting new emphasis on thrift and frugality is unlikely.

But others suggest we may have entered an era in which multiple generations of Americans scale back their buying and borrowing.

Consumers molded by the uncertainty of the Great Depression in the 1930s represent the last generation recognized for its frugality. Through the latter half of the 20th century, this group's unrelenting pursuit of financial security may have seemed quaint.

But younger Americans now coming of age may be the heirs apparent. A new study of US demographic groups finds the values of so-called Generation Y, the oldest of whom are now in their early 20s, are most similar to those of their grandparents.

Their identity as team players, respectful of institutions and the status quo, were forged as part of a backlash against 1990s materialism, according to Geoff Meredith, co-author of "Defining Markets-Defining Moments." The attacks in New York and Washington, he says, will significantly reinforce the trend.

"What happened Sept. 11 is going to make it happen faster and stronger than it otherwise would have," he says.

The reverberations may quickly influence other demographic groups as well. One hint of the breadth of the shift: advertising, a traditional pulse point for a media-sensitive populace.

Some marketers began registering a value shift more than a year ago, and now are well armed for preparing companies to adjust their advertising and product development to fit the post-9/11 milieu.

The coming winter holidays will be a celebration of perceived American values: authenticity, children, community, connection, integrity, and sacrifice, says J. Walker Smith, president of marketing consultancy Yankelovich in Chapel Hill, N.C.

"At the very least, people will reject products and services that take away from the highest priority values," he says.

A new appreciation of middle-class life, sharpened by the heroism of New York's blue-collar rescuers, could make some consumption patterns seem even more conspicuous.

Mark Riedy, director of the real estate institute at the University of San Diego, says potential home buyers in southern California are withdrawing initial deposits on new homes and could delay such purchases for years.

"There's going to be a retrenchment," says Professor Riedy. "The age of innocence has ended for a lot of us that didn't live through the 1930s and '40s."

More than 50 percent of those refinancing their homes are withdrawing cash through home equity loans. But rather than spend the money on cars or education, the money is being used to pay down personal debt, says Doug Duncan, chief economist of the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Mr. Duncan predicts a growing movement through next year to shore up savings.

"Because of Sept. 11, people in general are going to be more conservative-minded and increase their savings," he says.

Still, many experts are skeptical that Sept. 11 has wrought an enduring shift in consumer attitudes. Some suggest that the Yankee wisdom of Benjamin Franklin's dictum "A penny saved is a penny earned," no longer touches a chord with Americans of the 21st century.

The erosion of real need among all but the American underclass, some argue, could be a key reason.

The underpinnings of the modern economy, such as dual-income families and a large social safety net, have rendered saving less necessary, says Lendol Calder, professor of history at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., and author of "Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit."

Since the 1960s, he says, Americans have largely redefined the very concept of saving.

"Consumers' notion of saving is similar to how a business defines saving - in terms of investments and durable goods, not money in the bank," says Prof. Calder.

Even the image of Americans gladly embracing austerity on the home front during World War II may be substantially idealized, says Lawrence Glickman, a professor of history at South Carolina State University.

Professor Glickman cites the flood of frustration in America that swelled in response to rationing during the 1940s.

"Intellectuals ... thought we would become a new kind of country because of sacrifice," says Glickman. "But they didn't see Americans becoming less materialistic, just more frustrated at their inability to consume goods."

There are exceptions to the spendthrift image. Evangelical Christian subcultures and certain ethnic groups like German Americans have historically emphasized saving.

Indeed, a thread of dissent against American materialism and rampant consumerism has stretched through much of American history, from the Puritans to the prairie populists and into the present day.

These groups have traditionally grown in ranks during times of plenty, as disaffected consumers look for an alternative to the materialism of the age, according to Glickman.

Current manifestations include the agrarian and craft movements, as well as the simplicity organizations that publish books on living with two pairs of pants, three shirts, and one self-knit sweater.

"Through things like church organizations, labor unions, or other associations," says Glickman, "segments of the population will want to change their ways."

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