MONEY

Underwear, hot waitresses, and other leading economic indicators

If you want evidence that our economy may be on the way to recovery, forget about car sales and new home starts and all that stuff — and instead look at men’s underpants. If they don’t have holes in them, good times may be coming soon.

That’s the premise of an interesting theory proffered — at least half seriously — in a recent article in the Washington Post by writer Ylan Q. Mui. “Here’s the theory, briefly,” she writes. “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.”

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What do our shopping habits tell us about the economy?
But now there’s evidence, Mui notes, that the great underwear sales slump may be beginning to ease: Sales are up at Target and Sears, and the consumer researchers at NPD Group are predicting a much slower decline next year than we’re seeing this year. “As with many economic indicators, a slowing of a decline can be welcomed as a step in the right direction,” she adds. (Well, technically speaking, it’s still a step in the wrong direction, albeit a smaller one.)

There’s an appealing logic to the underpants theory, but the track record of these sorts of whimsical economic indicators is mixed, at best. Remember the Lipstick Index? This was the notion, set forth by the chairman of Estee Lauder back in the dogs days of 2001, that lipstick sales would actually go up in a recession, as women who couldn’t afford Manolo Blahniks tried to pamper themselves with cheaper indulgences.

Unfortunately for Estee Lauder, that hasn’t happened in this recession, with sales of lipstick down 8 percent over the past year, as Mui points out. Indeed, as The Economist noted earlier this year, a look at what data we have on the subject suggests that lipstick sales bounce up and down seemingly independently of what’s going on in the economy.

Then there is the Hot Waitress Economic Index, recently put forth by New York magazine writer Hugo Lindgren. As he explained the notion: “The hotter the waitresses, the weaker the economy. In flush times, there is a robust market for hotness. Selling everything from condos to premium vodka is enhanced by proximity to pretty young people (of both sexes) …. That leaves more-punishing work, like waiting tables, to those with less striking genetic gifts. But not anymore. A waitress at one Lower East Side club described to me what happened there: ‘They slowly let the boys go, then the less attractive girls, and then these hot girls appeared out of nowhere. All in the hope of bringing in more business.'”

So how’s that indicator at the moment? Lindgren noted that he’d recently been served by a waitress “who looked like Winona Ryder in her Heathers heyday.” That’s bad, bad news.

On the other hand, I’m thinking about buying some new underwear. So maybe there’s some hope for this economy yet.

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