Economic insight in the bottom of a nappy

2012-03-31 12:44

The Lipstick Index was a term coined by Estee Lauder chairperson, Leonard Lauder, to describe the surge in sales of small luxuries – particularly lipsticks – in a time of recession.

He coined the term during a downturn in the global economy in 2001, when the sales of lipsticks in the US grew by 11%.

Believers in the theory trace the phenomenon back to the Depression, when cosmetic sales increased by 25%, despite the badly bruised economy.

However, this index was questioned during the recent 2008 global economic crisis, when it was not so much lipstick sales that increased but manicures, nail polish and oddly enough mascara.

So while it can be debated whether or not the Lipstick Index has any real merit, the truth is that people do reward themselves with smaller, more affordable, little luxuries when cash-strapped.

I have, however, come across another strange economic indicator, which I have called the “Nappy Index”.

There is a stark difference between the Nappy Index and the Lipstick Index, but both point to lifestyle changes brought about by a recession.

While the Lipstick Index centred around personal rewards via affordable luxuries, my Nappy Index is a much more practical phenomenon that serves the very real needs of new parents.

We’re all familiar with the baby shower: traditionally a women-only party to celebrate the arrival of a new baby.

The mother-to-be’s friends would buy gifts for the new arrival ranging from clothing and toys to the practical equipment needed for the baby’s day-to-day care.

Now there’s a new suburban spin to this: the Nappy Braai – a more macho affair for the dad-to-be, with a suitably practical spin on gifts.

Each male guest is required to bring a pack of disposable nappies to the braai, to contribute to the ever-escalating costs of having a baby.

In terms of social dynamics this trend is interesting. It not only acknowledges the father in the parents-to-be equation (many baby showers have now become “unisex” and simply serve as a get-together for all of the couple’s friends), but it also points to the cost of bringing a child into this world, especially when times are tough.

We’ve reached a tipping point where there is no longer any shame in asking for financial help – we’ve just gift-wrapped it in a socially acceptable manner.

Take for example the other (now entrenched) trend for newlyweds to forsake the traditional bridal registry, and bluntly ask for money instead of homeware.

The request is usually woven into some cute poem but the message is crystal clear: “we don’t need another toaster, just give us cash.”

And if you are in any doubt as to how deep this recession has run, then check out a reality show called Extreme Couponing.

The series follows the lives of women who have devoted all their time to collecting coupons and beating the system – and beat the system they do.

Like a meticulously planned military attack they – all family members are roped into this operation – descend on a supermarket and bulk-buy products linked to their carefully curated coupons.

They usually buy trolley loads of groceries valued at hundreds of dollars, but when they cash in their coupons, they eventually only pay $20 (about R150) or less, or sometimes almost nothing, for a sizable cupboard-full of groceries, which they store in pantries that resemble nuclear bunkers.

The fact that clipping coupons is not only no longer looked down upon as Scrooge-like behaviour, but can seep into popular culture as a reality TV show, speaks volumes about how radically value systems have shifted since 2008.

The Nappy Index may seem like a quirky benchmark of changing times but it is nonetheless a very real benchmark.

If parents today are set to spend approximately R12 000 just to get one child toilet trained, how can parents afford to have large families in this day and age?

If not with substantial dual incomes, then perhaps the concept of a “school fee shisa nyama” is not too far off?

» Chang is the founder of Flux Trends

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