Personal Finance > Saving and Spending
Consumers seek comfort
graphic November 9, 2001: 1:03 p.m. ET

America copes by flying the flag, spending on things fostering safety, comfort.
By Sarah Max
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NEW YORK (CNNmoney) - Two months ago, no one could have imagined that gas masks would be in hot demand or that people working in high buildings would pay $800 for parachutes designed for jumping out of their office windows. Before October, most Americans thought anthrax was a head-banging '80s rock band. Cipro might have been mistaken for a fallen technology company.

Now we know that reality really is stranger and more frightening than fiction. We're reminded of it almost daily. Nearly everyone is going about their lives differently since Sept. 11.

  We get a lot of questions about whether there are exclusions for terrorist attacks. People are more serious about buying insurance and getting the process done quickly. They're asking how long it will take and if there are interim products to cover them in the meantime.  
  Lou Jeremia
In the first two weeks of October, for example, life insurance applications at shot up 50 percent.

"We get a lot of questions about whether there are exclusions for terrorist attacks," said Lou Jeremia, president of "People are more serious about buying insurance and getting the process done quickly. They're asking how long it will take and if there are interim products to cover them in the meantime."

It's not just the fear of terrorism that is influencing consumer behavior; the financial aftermath is also pulling on the strings of the American psyche.

"People who are feeling anxious might be thinking about reducing risks, saving more, or changing their investments," said Andrew Gershoff, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School, who specializes in consumer behavior. "If they're feeling depressed, they look for ways to make themselves feel more comfortable. They might eat more, smoke more, play the lotto."

Betsy Ross would be proud

In the days following the attacks, Americans painted the town in red, white and blue, and flag makers went into overtime trying to meet demand. Wal-Mart sold 450,000 flags in the three days following the attacks alone and, like most stores, temporarily sold out.

"Customers were so understanding when we ran out of flags," said Sharon Weber, a spokesperson for Wal-Mart. When shoppers couldn't get traditional stars and stripes, they loaded their baskets with any other kind of Americana. "Lee Greenwood is very popular right now," said Weber of the singer whose single hit "Proud to be an American" has become the poignant prelude to the national anthem at sporting events.

  We've certainly seen travel patterns change. We're seeing a lot less international travel but our weekend business is very strong. We're seeing more three- or four-day weekends than we've seen in the past.  
  Mike Stacy
Senior vice president of consumer marketing
This extreme patriotism (not to mention unemployment) is contributing to the wave of applications heading toward the public sector. Teaching jobs, police jobs and firefighting jobs have taken over where Internet startups left off. Within two weeks following the attacks, more than 150,000 applications for U.S. Air Marshals had been downloaded from the Federal Aviation Administration's site.

The Central Intelligence Agency, meanwhile, has received 26,000 applications since September 11. "Before the attacks we were getting 500 or 600 applications a week," said Anya Guilsher, a CIA spokesperson. "We're getting that many a day. On one day [September 17] we got 1,100."

Move over Dr. Atkins

While some people are satisfying their diet of patriotism with government service, others prefer a more fatty alternative. "I must say, we're doing a lot more comfort food," said Joshua, a waiter at Le Zinc, a bistro in New York's TriBeca neighborhood, serving macaroni and cheese and Hungarian stuffed cabbage on the menu. As a matter of fact, Euro RSCG Worldwide surveyed 100 New York women and found that the group gained an average of 4.7 pounds following the attacks.

The hankering for feel-good food isn't just a New York phenomenon. Americans across the country say they're eating more cookies, crackers, chocolate and frozen foods, according to another survey from Euro RSCG, which is a network of advertising agencies around the world. Ice cream has been particularly popular - 20 percent of the men and women surveyed admit they're eating more of it. "There seems to be no desire to delay gratification right now," said Marian Salzman, global director of strategic planning for Euro RSCG.

Alex Inman, a spokesperson for, says that people might have given up on their diets in the week following the attacks, but that traffic on the site has since ballooned. "I would disagree with the notion that America has given up on dieting," said Inman.

A little Martha in all of us

Both Jupiter and Nielsen/NetRatings predict that online sales will surge 40 percent this season, but Wall Street and even the retailers themselves are not so optimistic. In fact, they're bracing themselves for one of the worst holiday shopping seasons in years.

Adding to the effects of the sick economy is the feeling among many Americans that they'd rather stay home with family than spend time in the mall. "Even teens are less interested in going to the mall," said Salzman.

But while sales of luxury goods have softened, home entertainment and housewares may get a boost from America's urge to nest. In fact, sales of throw blankets, craft products, flat shoes and comfortable clothing seem to buck the trend. Says Gershoff: "We might see more sales at places like Bed Bath & Beyond or anywhere else we can buy things that make us feel comfortable."

"I'll tell you what's been doing very well: toy and video game companies," said Mark Greenberg, manager of the Invesco Leisure fund. "Instead of flying to see grandma and grandpa this year, people are planning to stay home and maybe spend a little more money on the kids."

Weekend road warriors

Despite falling airline ticket prices and every politician's encouragement to get back in the air, consumers are not as willing to fly as they were before September. The American Automobile Association expects a 27 percent decrease in the number of holiday travelers going by plane, train or bus, and they attribute most of that decline to air travel.

"We've certainly seen travel patterns change," said Mike Stacy, senior vice president of consumer marketing for Travelocity. "We're seeing a lot less international travel but our weekend business is very strong. We're seeing more three- or four-day weekends than we've seen in the past."

For some Americans, particularly those in large cities, the hardest trip is the one to and from work everyday. "I had a meeting in Napa Valley the other day and instead of taking the most direct route over the Golden Gate Bridge, I drove all the way around," said PH Mullen, author of the book "Gold in the Water." No surprise Euro RSCG found an increased interest in telecommuting.

The demise of 'Reality TV'

While Americans still seem willing to leave home to go to the movies, they would rather spend their $10 on something that's going to make them laugh or feel warm and cuddly. "We're retreating to the film equivalent of macaroni and cheese," said James Rocchi, senior film critic for the online DVD rental company Netflix.

In a survey of 4,000 of its customers, the company found an increased interest in comedy films and less appetite for action and drama. Hollywood has pulled the plug on scripts that hit too close to home and delayed movies scheduled to premier this fall. Arnold Schwarzenager's latest, "Collateral Damage," has been pushed back, as has Barry Sonnenfeld's "Big Trouble."

"I'd be thinking, short term, people want comedy, but who's to say where the public's mindset will be a few years from now," said Rocchi. "In the Cold War people couldn't get enough science fiction." graphic