To some extent, we are what we buy. American consumption trends—what we're purchasing more of, and what we suddenly stop buying—reveal a lot about who we are, and what's happening in the country.
Based on the list below—featuring a wide range of goods experiencing sharp sales growth—it's easy to see how American demographics are changing, as are our collective feelings about issues like personal health, safety and security, and the general state of the economy and the job market. In some cases, a sudden surge in sales might also come as a result of American consumers reacting to exciting new products hitting the market, interesting new marketing and pricing strategies, or dramatic changes in the purchasing power of the American dollar.
Here are a dozen categories benefitting from sudden sales increases lately. Odds are, you've been buying quite a few of them, and in greater quantities.
"Bowls are the new plates," the Wall Street Journal recently proclaimed. The menus of low- and highbrow restaurants alike all over the country have been overrun by meals served in bowls. “Bowl meals are definitely a trend with traction,” Aimee Harvey, managing editor of the food industry consulting firm Technomic, explained recently to the New York Post, in a story noting how health-conscious trendy people are swearing off plates in favor of bowls. "Bowls are up 29.7 percent in the entree category over a five-year period.”
It doesn't hurt that bowls are very Instagram-friendly, what with ingredient flavors and colors mixed (ideally) artfully together. Even McDonald's has been testing menu items served in bowls, including a breakfast option featuring a mashup of egg whites, turkey sausage, and kale.
A multitude of factors are feeding the bowl trend, including the vessel's versatility—perfect for pasta, soup, snacks, stir-fry, and any dish in which the chef wants flavors to mix rather than be separable by diners. The bowl craze has gone beyond restaurants and entered everyday homes too: Sales of bowls from manufacturers like Fiesta increased 17% last year.
Forecasts call for a reasonable 2.6% increase in baby diaper sales globally by 2020. That's nothing compared to adult diaper sales, which are projected to increase 48% over the same time span. The reason for annual sales increases of around 10% is simply that humans are living longer, and more than half of seniors struggle with incontinence.
Pot sales in America are growing like, well, a weed. With the expansion of legal medicinal and recreational sales around the country, marijuana is booming. In 2015, total legal sales in the U.S. hit $5.4 billion, a significant 17.4% increase compared with 2014. The tally of legal pot sales is expected to reach $6.7 billion in 2016. "You won't find another industry growing at that kind of clip," said Troy Dayton, chief executive of the ArcView Group, the "legal cannabis industry's premier hub for investment, data and progress," which gathered the data.
Sales of legal marijuana in the U.S. have been so strong that they've caused Mexican drug cartel revenues to plummet—because the product stateside is cheaper and higher quality than what's been smuggled over the border in the past. (Unfortunately, the cartels are producing more heroin and meth to make up for the loss in marijuana profits.) The sales taxes being collected in states such as Colorado, one of the few states where recreational pot is legal, are reportedly keeping some struggling towns afloat. New recreational centers, roads, and water lines are being built throughout the state, largely being funded by marijuana taxes.
Gun sales in America have been strong for many years. Yet the confluence of two major factors—a string of tragic high-profile mass shootings like the one in San Bernardino, Calif., combined with fears that gun legislation could make it more difficult to purchase firearms—has pushed gun sales to record highs lately. The FBI processed an all-time high 185,345 background checks on Black Friday 2015, and total background checks for gun sales for the year topped 23 million, eclipsing the previous high of roughly 21 million in 2013. One of America's largest firearm manufacturers, Smith & Wesson, recently announced that revenues were up 61.5% for the quarter ending January 31, year over year, and gross profit doubled during the same time period.
Stuff in Canada
The Canadian loonie lost 16% of its value in 2015, and $1 in American currency is now worth nearly $1.35 Canadian. The drastic shift in the exchange rate is nudging plenty of Americans to cross the northern border on shopping sprees. CBC News reported that American visits to Canada were up 1.6 million during the first 11 months of 2015, and economists say that visitation (and spending) by U.S. tourists will keep increasing in 2016. (By contrast, Canadian spending in the U.S. is projected to decrease by $3 billion this year.) Americans are also spending more at Canadian websites, because there are bargains to be had even after factoring in the costs of shipping goods across the border.
In a side note, a campaign was recently launched enticing Americans to move to Canada, but the main selling point there is the opportunity to avoid the possibility of Donald Trump as president. The American dollar-friendly exchange rate would just be a bonus.
Fast Food Hot Dogs
When Burger King added grilled hot dogs to its permanent menu starting in late February, it also kicked off a multi-front hot dog war with 7-Eleven, Checkers & Rally's, and other longtime dog sellers offering special deals to protect their turf. The result has been that fast food and convenience store customers have had their pick of new and sometimes free hot dogs lately—and unsurprisingly, hot dog sales have soared.
Despite some brutal reviews, BK hot dogs have thus far been hot sellers, with one large BK franchise owner describing customer interest in the new product as "overwhelming." Meanwhile, Checkers and Rally's reports that hot dog sales have doubled in March thanks to big discounts offered as a response to Burger King entering the market.
In 2005, only 16.6% of new car purchases were leased. By 2014, the leasing rate was up to 27%, and then hit a record high of 29% in 2015. During the fourth quarter of 2015, leases represented 33.6% of new vehicles sold. Leasing is increasing among younger car buyers in particular—up 46% among millennials over the past five years, compared with an uptick of 41% for all buyers.
The sharp increase in leasing is largely the result of higher purchase prices for new cars, as consumers have shown a rising preference for trucks, SUVs, luxury vehicles, and other pricier automobiles. The average transaction price in December 2015 was $34,428, up nearly $300 compared to the same month in 2014. More buyers have been turning to leases because the monthly payments are lower compared with financing the same vehicle. Then again, when you're leasing a car rather than buying it outright, you have to turn it back in when the lease term is up.
There are many questions about e-cigarettes: Critics are concerned that they are addictive and unregulated, and that they're possibly even more dangerous than regular tobacco products because e-cigarettes are promoted as healthy alternatives to standard smoking.
One issue that's not up for debate is that e-cigarette sales have been smoking, at least until very recently. After seeing triple-digit growth in e-cig sales for years, forecasts have called for sales to increase 33% in the U.S. from 2015 to 2019, and for the global market to hit $20 billion by 2025. These estimates may be far off the mark, however, as sales seem to have slowed in late 2015, and researchers have recently projected that sales of vaporizers will increase "only" 51% in 2016, down from a rise of 126% in 2015. Changing preferences have apparently impacted sales, as have regulators cracking down on the market due to concerns about these products getting into the hands of children: Alarmingly, the use of e-cigarettes among middle and high school students tripled in one year, according to CDC data.
During the recent craft beer revolution, the number of craft breweries and their share of total beer market sales have both doubled just in the past five years. Traditional mass-market beers, on the other hand, have overwhelmingly gone in the opposite direction, with brands like Budweiser and Miller Lite suffering steep sales declines.
One of the few recent success stories in terms of big-label beer brands has been Michelob Ultra. Whereas regular Michelob sales have been flat or downright bad, the low-calorie Ultra label has taken off. “Michelob Ultra is on fire,” Anheuser-Busch InBev CEO Carlos Brito said recently, noting double-digit sales growth by volume for the brand in 2015, compared with a decline of nearly 2% for sales of its brands overall to U.S. retailers. According to one market research report, Michelob Ultra sales increased 17% over a 12-month span ending last May, making it one of America's fastest growing beer brands. And the reason Ultra has been ultra-hot seems to have nothing to do with taste—collectively rated as "awful" by hundreds of reviewers at BeerAdvocate—so much as it is a beer (or at least beer-ish) that's low in carbs and has only 95 calories.
Stuff via Mobile Devices
Not long ago, most consumers were pretty reluctant to make purchases on their smartphones, and even on tablets. As e-retailers made it much easier (and seemingly safer) to browse and close the deal anywhere there's wi-fi, however, mobile shopping has rapidly become a practical, popular option.
According to Comscore, mobile spending—via smartphones and tablets—hit $12.7 billion in November-December 2015, up nearly 60% compared with the same period the year before. Spending via desktop computer, meanwhile, was up only 6% year over year. Bear in mind that mobile spending totaled $13.4 billion for the entire year of 2011, and it's clear that the category has come of age.
High-Deductible Health Care Plans
While health care premiums have seen steady incremental price increases in recent years, the total amount paid out of pocket for health care by Americans has positively soared. Monthly premiums have risen 24% since 2010, yet that's only part of the burden. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average deductible—the amount you must pay before insurance coverage kicks in—has increased 67% over the past five years.
These figures are based on workers who get health coverage through their employers—who are increasingly lowering their costs by shifting more responsibility onto employees. The average U.S. worker now pays $1,318 out of pocket before health insurance coverage begins to cover part of their bills, up from $584 a decade ago. Workers in smaller firms are more likely to face high deductibles: 63% of these employees have deductibles of $1,000 or more, compared with 39% of employees at big companies.
Read next: 3 Ways to Save on Health Care This Year
Streaming Service Subscriptions
Name a well-known streaming video or music service, and odds are its subscriber numbers are growing by leaps and bounds. Spotify is closing in on 30 million paid subscriptions, compared with 20 million last June. Netflix and Hulu have hit 70 million and 9 million subscribers, respectively, up from 57 million and 6 million in 2014. An estimate from Juniper Research forecasts that the total number of video streaming subscription services like Netflix and Amazon Prime will reach 330 million worldwide by 2019.
Even Tidal, the struggling Jay Z-owned music streaming company, has experienced tremendous growth lately, much of it thanks to pal Kanye West's decision to stream his new album only via the service. Tidal subscriptions recently hit 2.5 million, after first reaching the 1 million mark only in September.