Features

Slump change

National | E-commerce, station wagons, and counter-cyclical companies are doing OK as the economy softens

Issue: "Abolition of C.S. Lewis?," June 16, 2001

E-bust or boomlet?
Total spending on Internet sales increased from $3.5 billion in March to $4.3 billion in April, according to Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. That's about $1 billion higher than during the same month last year, but do the new numbers signal a boom or a bust? In the late 1990s, analysts offered near-horizon predictions of triple-digit revenues for e-commerce. For example, The Keenan Report projected that Web commerce would account for $446 billion, or 4.4 percent of the U.S. GDP, by 2001. But roadblocks, such as consumer concerns over the security of credit card information, slowed online sales growth, and actual e-commerce performance fell far short of glowing projections. Consumers, though, may be slowly changing their minds. According to a survey by Arlington, Ill.-based Market Facts Interactive, Americans now are more comfortable divulging credit card information online than over that old standby, the telephone. Over half of survey respondents (56.9 percent) said they were "comfortable" or "somewhat comfortable" sharing bankcard data over the Internet, versus 43.5 percent by phone. According to InfoWorld, a tech news digest, advances in online encryption technology are tipping the balance. That 70s car
Following in the wake of bell-bottoms and disco, another 1970s fixture is making a comeback: the station wagon. But today's wagons aren't your Brady-style, stretch grocery carts. Several carmakers, including Buick, Volkswagen, and Saab, have joined Subaru in offering wagon or wagon-like autos that attempt to meld sedan comfort, SUV style, and hatchback economy. While features in American-made wagons like the new Ford Focus wagon tend toward the pedestrian, European models such as the Volkswagen Passat GLX offer yuppie extras such as pet harnesses and refrigerated glove boxes. As high fuel prices drive SUV owners in search of cheaper wheels, some wagon sales are rising. For example, sales of Saab's 9-5 wagon have increased 44 percent since January, according to Saab Cars USA, Inc. But car buyers seeking wagon-like fuel economy still may suffer SUV-like sticker shock. Even the clunky-looking Subaru Outback Legacy costs between $21,000 and $33,000. Recession, please
Certain industries, such as utilities and retail foods, usually weather economic downturns well. People always eat and turn on the lights, even in a slump. But some companies actually thrive when the economy goes south. HMOs and group insurance carriers, for example, can grab new clients as businesses casting off ballast seek cheaper ways to provide employees with life and health insurance. Companies serving the secondary loan market also see revenues spike during a slump: As more businesses fall behind in their loan payments, more banks liquefy their loan portfolios by selling them to other financial institutions. For example, Lorne Paskin, CEO of LoanAuction, a Web-based firm that earns transaction fees by connecting commercial loan buyers and sellers, said he expects to see increased activity during the months ahead. Financial and career strategists seeking off-peak opportunities could start by seeking out companies that help other companies weather tough times, Mr. Paskin said. But he cautions: "Any company that relies solely on a weak economy will lose its luster when the market rebounds." Liars for hire
Among people applying for new jobs, there's a lot of lying going on. About one in four applicants last year misrepresented his or her employment or education records, according to a review of 1.8 million background verifications performed by Avert, Inc., a Colorado-based company that provides employment screening. Avert and other companies, such as New Jersey-based Pinkerton and The Amherst Group in Riverside, Calif., contract with employers to conduct in-depth checks of job applicants' education, financial status, driving records, even criminal conviction records. Analysis of Avert's year 2000 background checks also revealed that former employers of about one in 10 applicants had deemed them ineligible for rehire; one-quarter of applicants had credit records that showed a judgment, lien, or bankruptcy; and 6 percent had been convicted of a crime within the last seven years. Some job seekers disclosed that information on their applications, while others fudged or withheld it. But the amount of prevarication taking place doesn't seem to rise or fall with the unemployment index. According to a vice president at a national aviation firm, the percentage of applicants who lie on job applications remains constant, regardless of the condition of the job market.

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