How is Britain tightening its belt?
Are you an ostrich or a vulture? A crash-dieter or a scrimper? With gloomy skies and lashing rain echoing the miserable economic forecasts, I took to wondering exactly how Britain is tightening its belted mackintosh.
According to M&C Saatchi (who, like all ad agencies, cannot resist classifying people) recession reveals a range of personalities.
'Ostriches' refuse to change their behaviour. Young, carefree, they let the plastic take the strain.
'Vultures' sniff an opportunity - seeing bargains everywhere, they are ready to swoop.
'Crash-dieters' have stopped buying all luxuries and spend as little as possible on essentials.
'Scrimpers'? Well, apparently they went on holiday to Cornwall, rather than Corfu.
Today's BBC survey revealing the rising cost of groceries may act as a particular nudge to lovers of croissants and bolognese sauce (up 40%). Perhaps they will indulge their food fantasies on a packet of rusks topped with cheesy string (baby food and dairy down 1-2%).
Economics changes the way people behave. But how are Britons really responding to the current downturn? We are not buying that new car - figures today show sales at their lowest level for over 40 years. We are not saving - household savings put at their lowest level for 50 years.
The country is experiencing what's been dubbed the 'Aldi effect' as consumers head for the budget supermarkets. Aldi sales are up nearly 20%, Lidl up 12.3% while Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons all report sharp growth in their discount lines. Organic produce has apparently suffered a hit with a survey for the Guardian suggesting spending has fallen from a peak of nearly £100m a month earlier this year to £81m in the most recent four-week period recorded. "The fall has been steepest in eggs, but is also reported in the most popular sectors, including dairy, fruit and vegetables and chicken" the paper reports.
We are eating out less - sales of ready-cooked meals are up as herds of 'STAGS' - Stay at Home Gourmets head for the food halls. The aprons are fastened, the plastic lid is peeled off the 'restaurant-quality' ready-meal and Cava is slurped as they micro the duck breast in raspberry jus.
Austerity has strange consequences. Sales of lipstick and perfume usually increase. L'Oréal and Estée Lauder both say that is what is happening now as women forego the frock but cheer themselves up with a lippy and scent.
Despite all that make-up and fragance, money worries tend to lower people's sex drive: the dip in the birth rate in 1976 is often put down to the recession of 1974. And people are less likely to get married (or divorced) during an economic downturn.
We are driving less, the roads seem emptier, buses busier, cycle lanes more crowded - the price of petrol seems to be having a direct impact on our behaviour. American motorists have cut something like 11 billion miles from their monthly driving with the US Department of Transportation calculating that the change has helped cut greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 9 million metric tons for the first quarter of 2008.
For some, budgets were already so tight that a squeeze means real suffering. But I can't help feeling that for many, the downturn might act as a positive corrective. For those too young to remember what a recession feels like, belt-tightening may bring a new and healthy understanding of what "essentials" really are; a realisation that economies (as it says in the small-print) can go down as well as up - and we need to be able to adapt to both.