GLBT Consumers Stay Upbeat on Economy

With overall consumer confidence stuck near record lows, marketers would be glad to hear of a consumer cohort that’s feeling less glum about the economy. A survey released last week by Witeck-Combs Communications and Harris Interactive presents them with one: the nation’s gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) market. Though GLBT consumers are scarcely oblivious to the recession, the survey finds them more upbeat about the economy’s direction than are respondents in general -- as well as more optimistic about their own financial prospects.

In the polling, conducted last month, 57 percent of GLBT respondents said they expect the economy to improve in the coming year, vs. 45 percent of the survey’s heterosexuals. Moreover, 31 percent of gay and lesbian respondents said they think their own household’s financial situation will improve during the next six months, vs. 24 percent of the heterosexuals.

While the recession has not spared GLBT consumers, there’s reason to think they’ve been hit somewhat less hard than the population in general. The demographic skew of GLBT households is a factor in this. “With only 20 percent to 25 percent of GLBT households having children in them, the remaining households have more financial flexibility and likely fewer financial obligations than those with children,” said Wes Combs, president of Witeck-Combs, a Washington, D.C.-based marketing and communications firm that specializes in the GLBT market. “This is one of the reasons marketers target GLBT consumers.”

While noting that GLBT consumers have been making their share of sacrifices during the downturn “to ensure that their household is protected from the many fluctuations in our current economy,” Combs nonetheless expects them to bounce back more quickly than others once the recession finally ends. “It is my sense that they will begin spending sooner, and because of the lower incidence of children in their households, they are likely to do so to a greater degree than their heterosexual counterparts,” he said.

Amid the dreadful jobs market that has been a conspicuous part of the recession, many GLBT consumers have had the advantage of greater labor-market flexibility -- again because they’re less apt to have children at home. “If you have kids, you may be anchored in a school district,” noted Jeffrey Garber, president of Syracuse, N.Y.-based OpusComm Group, another marketing/advertising firm that specializes in addressing the GLBT audience. That’s less likely to be a factor for GLBT consumers. “It’s not like, ‘Oh my God, if I lose this job, what do I do?’ They can look anywhere for a job,” Garber said.

Research by San Francisco-based Community Marketing, which also specializes in the GLBT market, points to another reason why the steep rise in total unemployment may have put less of a dent in this cohort’s finances. “Certainly many members of the gay and lesbian community have been affected,” said David Paisley, senior projects manager at Community Marketing. “But we have found that gays and lesbians tend to be overrepresented in careers such as education, health care and urban core professional careers. These jobs have been less affected by the recession than jobs like construction or manufacturing. In some ways, traditional gay and lesbian careers track closer to women as a whole in the U.S., and these types of jobs have experienced fewer job losses.” He remarks that the pattern of unemployment has led some people to dub the current recession a “man-cession,” since “it is traditional male jobs that have been hit the hardest. ‘Will and Grace’ have done much better in this recession.”

This points toward a reality sometimes neglected amid general gloom about the economy: people who feel secure about keeping their jobs are a very different audience these days from people who have lost a job or feel in peril of doing so. “I think, gay or straight, this is a great time for consumers with jobs and money,” said Paisley. “Cars, electronics and travel are at very low prices compared to income. Those are traditional strong purchasing areas for the gay and lesbian community, and we have found that about one-third of our polled consumers have seen the recession as a ‘buying opportunity.’ The key is for companies to pitch their products to consumers with jobs, gay or straight.”

With consumers in general watching their discretionary spending carefully, Garber said that the GLBT audience could be a refuge for marketers of luxury goods. He suggests that marketers in this category might say to themselves, “The GLBT market may be the last people on earth who can afford my product.” That’s in sync with what Combs has seen: “With more discretionary income, GLBTs can spend money on more luxuries than the average household.”

Travel is a case in point. In a Witeck-Combs/Harris Interactive survey conducted prior to this year’s spring/summer vacation season, heterosexual respondents were much more likely than GLBTs (32 percent vs. 18 percent) to say they’d be settling for a “staycation.” The heterosexuals were also more likely than the GLBT respondents to say they’d be looking for “less-expensive activities” (61 percent vs. 51 percent) and that they’d be seeking “less-expensive meal options” (60 percent vs. 42 percent).

Apart from the obvious dollars-and-cents reasons for greater economic confidence on the part of GLBT consumers, there’s a political dimension as well. With a lopsided majority of them having supported Barack Obama with their votes last November, GLBT adults are more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to have faith that his economic policies will move things in the right direction. In last month’s Witeck-Combs/Harris polling, 69 percent of GLBT respondents (vs. 51 percent of the survey’s heterosexuals) expressed confidence that “the White House and the administration will produce policies to help fix the economic crisis.” Likewise, 82 percent of the poll’s GLBT adults, vs. 60 percent of its heterosexuals, said they trust Obama “to do what is right for the economy.” There was an even larger gap when people were asked to assess whether the stimulus plan enacted earlier this year has panned out well. Sixty-four percent of GLBT respondents rated it as “successful,” vs. 39 percent of heterosexuals.

More broadly, the advent of the Obama administration -- and departure of the Bush administration -- has lifted the mood of GLBT adults in a way that carries over to their economic spirits. Garber makes the point that many GLBT people felt “oppressed” during the Bush years, and experienced “a euphoric feeling of optimism that there can be social and political change” when Obama took over.

Combs makes a similar point: “GLBT adults feel they have a friend in the White House for the first time in eight years.” And this can affect their economic outlook in very practical ways. “They feel there is a greater likelihood that anti-discrimination legislation like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which will provide workplace protections for GLBT Americans, will finally become law,” said Combs.

The regime change in Washington has an additional salience for GLBT small-business owners. “My business partner and I were among 250 small-business owners invited to the White House during the early part of this administration to participate in a Small Business Administration program announcement,” said Combs. “The message was clear to us: all small businesses, including GLBT-owned ones, are part of this administration’s vision of America. It certainly gave us hope that more programs were going to be available to us as business owners, and that we may encounter less discrimination as a gay-owned business, because this administration is focusing on a dialogue of inclusion, not exclusion.”

- Nielsen Business Media
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