10 Quirky Economic Indicators

Everyone is scrambling to get their fingers on the pulse of the economy. When will it turn around? Have we seen the worst? The answers may not be as elusive as you might think.

SEE OUR SLIDE SHOW: 10 Quirky Economic Indicators

You’ll find all sorts of clues in everyday life to help determine where the economy really stands. The racks of dry cleaners, for instance, may seem a bit more cluttered these days, and it’s true—many people are stalling an extra week before shelling out to pick up their clothes. And to paraphrase a famous quote from other troubled times, don’t shoot back into the market until you see the whites of their eyelids: Eyeliner sales have surged during the recession.

Packed Theaters

When times get tough, people go to the movies. Box-office sales have increased in all of the last five recession years. According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, the number of movie tickets sold in the first quarter of 2009 increased more than 9% from last year.


People continue to fill theater seats, NATO says, because movies are one of the least expensive entertainment options out of the house. The average ticket price in 2008 was $7.18. So when the lines get shorter and ticket prices higher, will happy times be here again?

More Green Thumbs

The National Gardening Association finds that the number of households that will grow their own fruits, berries, vegetables and herbs this year is 19% higher than in 2008.

That makes 43 million gardeners in the United States this year. It’s fun and relaxing, no doubt, but 54% of the respondents say the prospect of saving money on groceries motivates them to till the soil.

More First Dates

Misery loves company, eh? Online dating service Match.com notices a pattern in its site activity during tough times. The fourth quarter of 2008 was its busiest in seven years (the site has been around since 1995). Match had a similar surge in late 2001, right after 9/11.

The company believes people are looking for someone with whom they can forget about money troubles—or share the pain. When the Dow Jones industrial average dropped to a five-year low last November, Match.com had its second-busiest weekend of the year.

Romance Novels Are Hot

The economy broke your heart. Time to bury your sorrows in a a romance novel? At least that’s what Harlequin, the giant romance-novel publisher, says is happening. In 2008, Harlequin’s sales were up 32% from the year before. In 2009, its sales are still rising.

The publisher credits the increase to its uplifting stories that offer a haven, and to the low prices of the books relative to other entertainment. Harlequin saw a similar sales increase during the recession of the early ’90s. So if these books start piling up unwanted on the discount table at the bookstore, alongside all those mistimed guides to real estate riches, better news might be on the way.

Droopier Eyes I

America is all tuckered out. The 2009 Sleep in America Poll found that nearly one-third of Americans lost sleep because they were worried about their finances. The poll, by the National Sleep Foundation, also found that 10% of those people tossed and turned, specifically worrying about their jobs. That’s roughly the same percentage of Americans who are out of work.

Droopier Eyes II

Americans spent $10.3 billion in 2008 to endure 1.7 million cosmetic surgeries, which is 9% less than in 2007. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons cites the bad economy.

Without as much extra cash—and facing depleted retirement funds and much less home equity—fewer people can spend freely on plastic surgery. The number of liposuction procedures was down 19% in 2008 and tummy tucks were down 18%. Sure, you might get an appointment with a top surgeon without much of a wait now. But will you be able to get in so easily next year? Some would say, let’s hope not.

Goopier Eyelashes

You’ve got that recession look in your eye. Total eye-makeup sales at supermarkets and drugstores were up 8.5% in the one-year period that ended on March 22. In that period, more than $260 million was spent on eye makeup – in particular, eyeliner was up 9% and mascara almost 13%, the industry says.

The leading lipstick indicator – the past trend that lipstick sales rose in economic downturns as consumers settled for inexpensive luxuries – is not holding up. Lipstick sales are down 11%. But eye makeup has replaced lipstick as the indicator, devotees of this theory say.

Too Many Gators

What do 100,000 alligators have to do with the economy? They’re all residents of Savoie’s Alligator Farm, one of the largest in Louisiana. Yet, the farm, which sells gator-skin hides to tanners who in turn sell them to luxury designers like Louis Vuitton, says it hasn’t sold a single hide since November.

People just aren’t buying alligator skin handbags and luggage. Yes, it’s tough on the gator farmers. They’re trying to keep the hides they already have in stock from spoiling. But it’s good news for alligators everywhere—if they only knew.

Dry Cleaning Pickups Are Down

The International Drycleaning and Laundry Institute is hearing gripes from many of its 5,000 members. Because of the poor economy, customers are visiting less frequently and leaving clothes longer. Customers who once came weekly now visit every two weeks, monthly customers visit bimonthly, and some people delay their pickups even longer to avoid the bill. This has been a staple indicator of hard times in the past. We’re not making these up. People really do look at such trends and patterns.

More Mosquito Bites

In Maricopa County, Ariz., huge numbers of foreclosed or abandoned homes have vacant swimming pools and unattended ponds. The stagnant waters – known as green pools — are a hotbed for mosquito breeding, say local authorities. Crews have treated more than 4,000 green pools already in 2009. During the same period in 2007, before metropolitan Phoenix’s housing market collapsed, they had treated only 2,500. While most are on vacant properties, some also belong to residents who can’t afford to maintain their pools and ponds.

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