The experts mined the data and found that the stores would indeed need certain products – and not just the usual flashlights. "We didn't know in the past that strawberry Pop-Tarts increase in sales, like seven times their normal sales rate, ahead of a hurricane," Ms. Dillman said in a recent interview. "And the pre-hurricane top-selling item was beer."
"Thanks to those insights, trucks filled with toaster pastries and six-packs were soon speeding down Interstate 95 toward Wal-Marts in the path of [Hurricane] Frances."
Of course, more recently the non-profit arm of Google – google.org – came out with Google Flu – which uses search (and hence user intention/need) and IP addresses rather than actual consumer behaviour buying cold remedies to track the emergence, location and spread of flu.
"The company was selling less bubble bath and more shower gel as people forgo filling up the tub in favour of brisker, cheaper showers….The consumer goods company, whose products can be found in 99.4 per cent of British homes, said sales of Knorr stock cubes were growing “double-digits” as more people chose to cook from scratch.
Tubs of Flora and Stork margarine and jars of Hellmans mayonnaise are also selling well as people make sandwiches for lunch and bake cakes and bread instead of buying them."
In the cleaning aisles, sales of niche products – such as specialist stainless steel cleaners and soaps for wood floors – are declining as families opt for multi-purpose Cif cleaners. Sales of all-purpose cleaners rose about 2 per cent in 2008, and specialist cleaning products had a 6 per cent drop in sales in value terms.
Unilever also said that, while people with dry skin were still buying moisturisers such as the Vaseline intensive rescue range, sales of everyday lotions – Dove body creams, Impulse moisturiser and others – were on the wane as people either did without or used creams less often.
Mr Close’s comments echo those by Andy Bond of Asda last year when he observed a rise in sales of hair-dye kits and frozen food. The chief executive of the supermarket chain said the severity of the downturn would change behaviour in the long run, and a generation of consumers would emerge who think frivolity “unacceptable” and frugality “cool”.