Mar 23, 2009, 08:16AM

Conspicuous Consumption

Retailers are getting more and more honest, offering deals specifically meant for the soon-to-be unemployed.

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Photo by dieseldemon

The national public mood is now in the hands of retailers. Not that President Obama isn’t doing his part—keeping his sober eyes on the long-term prize—but we’ve seen, in rapid succession, a string of major retailers offering insurances in the event you lose your job.

Jos. A Bank men’s clothing store is offering a “Risk Free Suit,” in which not only do you get your money back if you’re fired, you get to keep the suit:

If you buy a suit from Jos. A. Bank during our $199 Sale from March 16, 2009 through April 9, 2009, and you lose your job during the period from April 16, 2009 through July 1, 2009, Jos. A. Bank will rebate the price you paid for the suit, up to a maximum of $199, and you may keep the suit.

Eh, not too bad, considering, though they are pretty damn serious about the documentation:

1. Your original Jos. A. Bank sales receipt showing the purchase of at least one suit from March 16, 2009 through April 9, 2009.
2. A copy of the notice from your employer that your employment was terminated involuntarily during the period from April 16, 2009 through July 1, 2009.
3. A copy of your application for state unemployment benefits.
4. A completed Jos. A. Bank Risk Free Suit Rebate Application.

This is a serious proposition, and considering that many banks and firms’ revolving doors are now only flowing in one direction—the street—there may be more takers of this deal than one would think.

In an automobile environment as chaotic, perhaps, as the financial industry, Hyundai is trying to assure buyers, offering what they call a “giveback” program:

Hyundai Motor Co. announced a new incentive plan Monday that would allow buyers to break contracts and return vehicles if they lose their job or income.
The program is the latest effort to win over jittery consumers as industry sales hit a two-decade low. The South Korean company is offering to cover up to $7500 in negative equity on the lease or purchase of one of its cars or trucks.
To qualify for the giveback program, Hyundai owners must have made two scheduled payments on their loan or lease. The program covers the first 12 months of ownership.
The company would decide whether the person qualifies for the program based on his or her circumstances, then determine how much the vehicle is worth.
If buyers lose their income for reasons ranging from unemployment to death, Hyundai will allow them to return the vehicle.
Owners returning a car or truck would be liable only for negative equity over $7500. For example, if you have a $20,000 loan remaining on a truck that is now worth only $10,000, you can return the truck and Hyundai will cover $7500 of that $10,000 liability.

JetBlue is jumping on the incentive wagon, offering ticket refunds if you lose your job:

JetBlue Airways, which flies from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, said Tuesday it will issue full refunds to eligible customers who lose their jobs after purchasing tickets.
Customers who book flights between Feb. 1 and June 1 and lose their jobs on or after Tuesday may be eligible for the JetBlue Promise Program. JetBlue generally has nonrefundable fares.

What makes these offers drawing is their absolute bluntness; they’re saying to us, “You just might lose your job soon, but don’t stop buying suits, cars and plane tickets.” It’d be mocking if the three examples weren’t very much part of the economic fabric: job interviews usually require a suit; cars and planes might bring you to said interview, or to family members. These offers very well could play a small part in improving the country’s mood—consumers are seeing that big retailers and corporations are aware of the economy, aware of layoffs, aware that we need to face up to the reality that millions of jobs have vanished in a matter of months.

And the companies themselves? Hyundai reported a sales increase of 14% in January:

But it's Hyundai's offer that should get Detroit's attention. Hyundai sales were up almost across the board - nearly every Hyundai model saw a sales increase in January. Forbes reports, "Consumers flocked to showrooms after the company allowed buyers to return vehicles for a refund within one year if they lost their primary income stream—an assurance many appeared to need at a time when the U.S. economy continues to shed hundreds of thousands of jobs a month."

Tough times call for tough decisions, but, in the chaos and financial instability, imaginative, more sustainable business models and products will rise from the ashes. The biggest companies are not afraid to remind us of the here and now, and we shouldn’t be afraid to face it.


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