The new age of anxiety - how should merchants respond?

Our economy has tanked, we are fighting in wars with no end in sight, and the new President is predicting difficult times ahead. Our culture has become the "age of (even more) anxiety." Long before September 11, a study by the Yale Anxiety and Mood Center reported much higher levels of anxiety in the 1990s than they did in the 1950s. By the 1980s, normal children had higher anxiety levels than psychiatric patients tested in the 1950s.

Contributing to this chronic level of anxiety and worry has been 9/11, the D.C. sniper, increases in crime, threats of bio-terrorism, and "new" diseases such as Hepatitis C and West Nile virus. There has always been a lot to worry about for those inclined to do so, but now we are given new information every night on the news. The old adage, "if it bleeds, it leads," is the tune of newsrooms across the country adding fuel to the idea that on one is safe, even in their own homes.

The "war on terror" has left many of us terrorized. This national mantra has created a culture of fear in American like a self-inflicted wound. After the numbness of 9/11 subsided, we struggled as the "new normal" of frisking elderly women in airports, surrendering our lipsticks, and walking barefoot through metal detectors became a way of life. There is fear, anxiety and confusion. Exactly what does an elevation of the color code by Homeland Security mean? What am I suppose to do? Most of us have no idea, except we should probably be anxious. As I am asked the security questions at the Post Office and Airport, I can't help but think if I was a terrorist bent on blowing up hundreds of people, it probably would not bother me to offer fraudulent answers.

While this anxiety culture is very real, most of us do not focus our fears on snipers or terror. We transfer it to our everyday experiences and worries. If worried about relationships or finances, these uncertainties get magnified. If worried about the safety of our children, we get knots in our stomachs. And with the price of gas going up again, we fret over the economy and whether there will still be social security when we get there.

In talking with other small business owners, they all say the same thing. Business was slow but it really tanked once the recession was "officially" announced. Overnight, spending curtailed and anxiety skyrocketed. Apprehension gave way to angst as the nightly reports of the car and lending industries problems became clear. While many Americans are facing the harsh reality of losing their jobs, there are still businesses that are stable or even growing. Unfortunately, we hear little of that on the nightly news.

Our apprehension and fear has led most of us to tighten our wallets, reduce spending, and cancel trips and large purchases. We switch from lattes at Starbucks to Folgers home brew. Gone are the designer purchases for the kids--reenter shopping at Target. Not that this is all bad. The "affluensa" of the last decade was a culture of overspending and run away credit. The savings rate plummeted and credit card debt increased. The billions of dollars spent on advertising convincing us that more would make us happy led many of us to buy, buy, buy.

But contagious anxiety is not the answer either. The recuperation from anxiety is as important to economic recovery as quarterly statements. As consumer confidence increases so will spending and the economy. Some things you can do to reduce your customer's money fears:

  • Offer specials. It is a good time to buy almost everything. Let your customers know that you have deals, discounts and specials for preferred clientele.
  • Give last year's prices. When business is slow, I send a mailing letting people know that they can book at last year's prices. It always gets the phone ringing.
  • Extend deferred billing. As credit card companies have long known, people are more likely to buy if they don't have to pay the full amount right away. Offer a deferred payment schedule to make it easy for your customer to make a decision.
  • Give them something for free. Articles, tip sheets, books, and gadgets that help your customers be more successful are always appreciated. They will remember you when they are looking to buy.

Barbara Bartlein is The People Pro. Get a copy of her book at Marriage Tips and receive a FREE Couples Workbook.

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