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Home Economics of Anxious Times: Dyeing Your Hair in the Kitchen Sink

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009; Page A01

The economic downturn is forcing America's households to learn a tough lesson: how to fend for themselves.

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Sales of starter sewing kits have shot up by 30 percent at Wal-Mart as families forgo the tailor. Landscaping companies have suffered a 7 percent drop in revenue over the past year. Procter & Gamble said that it has noticed more questions from customers about how to dye their hair at home to match salon coloring.

The recession has had a powerful effect on the American state of mind. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released yesterday shows Americans have grown increasingly insecure about their finances since mid-September, as fears about making mortgage payments have spread and more believe the economy is in a long-term, serious decline.

These feelings have helped set off a change in behavior so pronounced marketers and businesses have coined a name for it. They call it "insourcing": doing yourself what you once gladly paid others to do.

Two-thirds of those responding to the new poll said they've cut back on spending, including nearly a third who have pulled back "sharply." Americans across income groups said they are opening their wallets less often these days.

"There are many of us that have been spending money that we can't afford to spend and have taken on habits that we had no business taking on," said Paco Underhill, who studies consumer behavior and wrote the book "Why We Buy." "Those time-based trade-offs actually are some of the easiest forms of economizing that a person can do."

Spending on pet services, for example, is expected to grow 6 percent this year after jumping as much as 40 percent earlier in the decade, according to an industry trade group. A report by SBI, a market research firm, shows the number of landscaping firms dwindled by 5,600, or 3.3 percent, last year. And an analysis of a range of services companies compiled by research firm Sageworks showed sales growth slowed to 4 percent last year, the lowest level in at least six years.

"So much of it comes down to perception," said Gordon Miller, executive director of the National Cosmetology Association, a trade group. "Do I perceive the service that I'm getting as an added pampering, or do I need it?"

Miller said his members report clients stretching the time between appointments. Professional Consultants & Resources, a beauty consulting company, estimated the salon industry continued to grow last year, but at 2.8 percent, a historic low. Susan Gustafson, president of Ratner Cos., which owns national chain Hair Cuttery, said more clients are showing up for just a trim, coloring their hair at home.

Many are adjusting their behavior even though their financial circumstances are unchanged, motivated by fear over the future of the economy.

Overall, 70 percent of Americans anticipate a downturn lasting well into 2010 or longer, according to the Post-ABC News poll. More than a third see it lasting two or more years. Those who see an extended recession are more likely to say they've pared back their typical buying habits.

Take Chris and Mary Poleto of Haymarket, whose income is stable but who are trying to chip away at credit card bills.

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