Tightie Whities, the Recession, and You

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Other than the obvious hygienic positive for society, there is a reason we all should be hoping that men are wearing clean, new underwear. Sales of boxers, briefs, and boxer-briefs are excellent indicators of how the economy is faring. When times are good, sales are good, increasing slightly over time. But as the economy struggles, sales trail off as men wear their underpants longer before buying new ones. It’s “like trying to drive your car an extra 10,000 miles” says one consumer expert.

The underpants economic theory has rung true during the recession. Sales of pricey male underwear (I didn’t know such a thing existed) have dropped significantly. If men are buying new boxers, they’re going cheap, and they’re more likely to opt for the single pair rather than the multi-pack. That indicates that men are holding out and purchasing only when they really need them—like when their only clean pair of skivvies are full of holes and they have a hot date.

The Washington Post has more:

Here’s the theory, briefly: Sales of men’s underwear typically are stable because they rank as a necessity. But during times of severe financial strain, men will try to stretch the time between buying new pairs, causing underwear sales to dip.

“It’s a prolonged purchase,” said Marshal Cohen, senior analyst with the consumer research firm NPD Group. “It’s like trying to drive your car an extra 10,000 miles.”

The growth in sales of men’s underwear began to slow last year as the recession took hold, according to Mintel, another research firm. This year, Mintel expects sales to fall 2.3 percent, the first drop since the company started collecting data in 2003.

One man interviewed in the piece used to buy new boxers every three months or so. Now he’s not working, and it’s been at least eight months since he’s bought underwear. “I just don’t ever go shopping,” he says.

And that may be the lasting legacy of the recession. As the NY Times recently put it:

The Great Depression imbued American life with an enduring spirit of thrift. The current recession has perhaps proven wrenching enough to alter consumer tastes, putting value in vogue.

When we’re talking about underwear, the truth is that in the past men were probably buying new pairs unnecessarily and tossing out the older ones quicker than was needed. They weren’t getting the best value for their money. But hey, they had the cash, and a new pair is nicer than an old pair, so why not?

That approach has changed, perhaps for quite some time. If the Times’ theory is correctly, people will continue be less wasteful, more hesitant to throw things away and replace them with new stuff. There’s really no simpler way to save: Just use what you have before assuming you need to purchase something new.

Regardless of how frequently men are purchasing new tightie whities, there are some very interesting items that consumers are buying more of during the recession—an interesting list that includes condoms, donuts, fast food, and smartphones.