Need an Economic Barometer? Check These Four Indicators

Some days, the economy’s dips and rises rival Coney Island’s Cyclone. Here are four unusual indicators of recession and revival.


The economy is showing signs of life. Cause for celebration: for the first time since the beginning of the year U.S. manufacturing is on the rise, and the Wall Street Journal reported, “financial markets in much of the world have been rallying in recent months. Businesses and households have been regaining confidence, and economists have revised forecasts upward. U.S. auto sales were the best in over a year, and the National Association of Realtors index of pending home sales hit its highest level in over two years.”


But before you slap on a (recycled) party hat and slosh some (cheap) champagne into a (biodegradable) plastic flute, there are some other economic indicators hiding in unlikely places that the financial folks may have overlooked.

Burpee Sweet Seedless

Check Your Backyard

There was a lot of talk in early spring about reviving the Victory Garden concept. It wasn’t just hot air. That talk translated to 43 million gardeners growing edibles this year, according to the National Gardening Association (NGA) who also reported that 54% of those said they were motivated by the prospect of saving money.

Tomatoes are often the amateur gardener’s first experiment. Kristin Grilli, spokeswoman for W. Atlee Burpee & Co. confirmed that their new “Sweet Seedless” tomato was their overall best seller for 2009 which doesn’t mean much on its own, but Grilli notes, “Burpee’s sales for seed starting kits in January 2009 were up 10% from January 2008, suggesting an increase in first-time vegetable garden customers.” She adds, “Sales for vegetable seeds and transplants (the small vegetable plant seedlings) are up 30 percent for 2009 over last year’s increase.”

Recession Meter: Economy is rebounding (you still have to spend on seeds, plants, soil and supplies). Bonus effect–consumers are getting smarter. It may be parsimonious to cultivate your own parsley, but nothing beats the taste of a homegrown tomato.

jockey briefs

Check Your Underwear Drawer

Never mind the “State of the Union,” how about the state of your union (suit)? Your skivvies say a lot about your (ahem) bottom line.

In 1934, during the depths of the Depression, Jockey briefs were born (PDF, right-click to save), inspired by a postcard of a guy in a bikini swimsuit at the French Riviera. According to the company, neither economic, nor blizzard conditions put a damper on sales, Marshall Fields in Chicago sold out of the entire stock of 50 dozen shorts before noon.

Today, Jockey’s chief operating officer, Ed Emma, says, “The men’s underwear industry as a whole saw a drop in sales in 2009, but Jockey has fared better than most in the category. We’ve gained market share in men’s and women’s categories with new, innovative products, while simultaneously offering classic styles and value-oriented products to consumers in response to these trying economic times.”

He adds, “As far as the age-old question of boxers vs. briefs, briefs still outpace sales of all other men’s underwear styles, but boxer briefs are rivaling that lead position.”


Recession Meter: The Washington Post reported on the Men’s Underwear Index (MUI) and found that though sales are down, they are (ahem, ahem) bottoming out. If so, there’s nowhere to go but up.


Check Your Spam

No silly, not your e-mail folder –your pantry. According to Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, a consumer market research firm, sales of the canned meat are up 40% in the last nine months. Balzer is not getting excited though. He says that while demand has increased, it is only among 1.4% of the population.

Though he admits NPD research has found that Americans are going out to eat less, those numbers are not terribly impressive either. Only about 4 to 5 meals more are eaten at home he says. “The numbers shifted, but they are so far off than what we think,” says Balzer. That’s possibly motivated by restaurant marketing such as a large sandwich for $5 that could feed someone for two days. “Deals are very big this year. Give me a deal and I’m out the door.”

Recession Meter: “There is no recession in food,” says Balzer, “there are only winners and losers. Foods labeled as ‘better for you’ were on the rise every year except last year. Now we are seeing cheap and easy meals such as macaroni and cheese. Marketing is the driver.”

estee lauder lipstick

Check Your Medicine Cabinet

Or your purse, or wherever you keep your lipstick. Lipstick sales have long been an economic indicator, thanks to Leonard Lauder, chairman of Estee Lauder who observed that sales go up when the economy goes down. Indeed, though the Estée Lauder Companies fourth quarter and fiscal year 2009 report showed lower makeup sales reflected declines across a broad range of products. But their Clinique brand High Impact Lip Colour SPF 15, which retails for $14, made a positive impact on sales. Overall, the NPD Group reported new lip color sales rocketed up 47% in the first half of this year.

Recession Meter: High Impact Lip Colour may sell for more than a drugstore brand, but according to customer ratings on the Clinique Web site, it wears longer than the average color, and it offers sun protection. Spending a little more to get more can only help the economy.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.