Behold the damage the recession has wrought on the consumer economy: Retailers and automakers have gone bankrupt, restaurants have closed, and malls have become ghost towns. Most businesses dependent on consumer spending, from clothing to computers to appliances, have felt the pinch.
But some consumer-product companies have benefited from the recession, usually because they sell the kind of stuff that helps people save money. Other companies have capitalized on timely technology or latched on to powerful trends that defy the recession. To identify some of these recession winners, I analyzed data provided by financial research firm Capital IQ, a unit of Standard & Poor's, to see which consumer-products firms have gained revenue and market share since the recession began near the end of 2007. Then I researched earnings reports and other sources to see which products have fueled each company's growth.
For many of these companies, any increase in revenue over the past two years is a nifty accomplishment, since overall sales of household goods have fallen by more than 30 percent, according to Capital IQ. And sales of supposedly recessionproof "staple" items like food, beverages, and personal products have barely risen. So firms that have significantly outpaced the rest of their industry deserve special attention.
The products and companies that made our list provide an interesting glimpse into how Americans have adjusted their spending and lifestyle habits in the midst of recession. We're finding plenty of ways to cut corners but still enjoy familiar pastimes and small treats. Here are some of the things we've spent more on during lean times:
Arm & Hammer laundry detergent. When money's scarce, who wants to splurge on household cleaners? Hardly anybody, it appears, which is why Church & Dwight's "power brands," known for value and dependability, have been thriving. Four years ago, when the economy was booming, the company's Arm & Hammer brands, including laundry detergent, toothpaste, and kitty litter, were growing at a sleepy 1 percent per year. In the midst of the recession, the company ramped up advertising for Arm & Hammer products, which has helped deliver double-digit sales gains for the past 12 months. Overall, Church & Dwight's revenue is up 12 percent over the past two years.
Coleman camping gear. Lavish vacations are back on the wish list, with more people staying close to home. That's good news for the Jarden Corp., which owns Coleman and more than 40 other everyday brands. Applications for fishing and camping permits are up about 10 percent over the past year, with some people even fishing more to help lower their grocery bills. That's helped boost sales of Coleman tents, coolers, stoves, and sleeping bags, along with fishing gear made by Stren and Trilene, two other Jarden brands. Other growing business lines, such as Ball canning jars and Rawlings sporting goods, have helped push company revenue up 12 percent since 2007.
Hyundai automobiles . There's a depression in the auto industry, with automakers going bankrupt, dealers shutting their doors, and sales down 27 percent from last year, according to J. D. Power & Associates. But Hyundai has the right cars for lean times, and sales are up nearly 3 percent, thanks to an affordable lineup of feature-packed vehicles and spiffy new models like the Genesis sedan and coupe. Hyundai and its sister company Kia were once lampooned as discount bottom-dwellers with offerings scarcely better than used cars. But a concentrated effort to improve quality has paid off, along with a strategy of offering more features for less than competitors like Toyota, Honda, and General Motors.
Keurig single-cup coffee . Java giant Starbucks has been struggling, but that doesn't mean coffee has fallen out of favor. Vermont-based Green Mountain Coffee Roasters has been boiling hot thanks to its Keurig single-cup brewing systems, popular in many offices and increasingly in private homes. Sales from the Keurig division have nearly doubled since last year, and Green Mountain's overall revenue has increased 86 percent during the recession, according to Capital IQ. Green Mountain's stock has been wired, too, rising nearly 190 percent since the start of 2008.
Monster Energy drinks . America must need a boost. The market for traditional sodas and juices is flat, but California-based Hansen Natural Corp. has been logging record sales and earnings this year thanks largely to its lineup of Monster Energy drinks. Starbucks has gotten into this trendy business, which has slightly cut into Hansen's sales. But Hansen has kept the Monster brand fresh with innovations like resealable cans and clever spinoffs like its Anti-Gravity and Killer-B varieties. Overall company revenue is up nearly 20 percent since 2007.
Presto cookers . It slices, dices, and makes money during a recession! The company that invented the Salad Shooter in 1988 is still turning out kitchen gizmos that appeal to nesting consumers doing more of their own cooking. National Presto Industries won't say which of its products are the biggest hits, lest the competition catch on, but Capital IQ's numbers show the company's revenue up nearly 12 percent since the recession began. Online bestsellers include a pizza oven, hot-air popcorn popper, and several types of pressure cookers.
Private-label salad dressing . The jar might say Kroger, Safeway, Wal-Mart, or Trader Joe's, but it's probably made by a private-label food company like Illinois-based TreeHouse Foods. Sales of cheaper store brands have surged during the recession, but consumers have also gotten used to higher quality. TreeHouse has capitalized on that trend, since it specializes in upscale dressings, sauces, soup, salsa, pickles, and organic products that top retailers can sell as their own. But you'll never know you're eating a TreeHouse product: The company won't say which foods it supplies to which stores. The secrecy seems to be good for business. Revenue is up 30 percent since the recession began, and the stock has soared 68 percent.
Transformers. Good and evil are still doing battle, which makes toy maker Hasbro a winner. The company's Transformers action figures have morphed into a franchise that includes two movies, a TV series, video games, comic books, and a wide range of spinoff toys that seem to be recessionproof. A sharp boost in entertainment licensing revenue from Transformers and a related stalwart, G.I. Joe, have helped offset reductions in other parts of Hasbro's earnings statement. Expect the bots to keep battling.
Tupperware. Pinched consumers are saving more of everything, including leftovers, which means these are boom times for food-storage products like Tupperware. The company has fancy new products tailored to the oxygen levels required by various fruits and vegetables you want to preserve in the fridge, along with old standbys for storing soup or bringing your lunch to work. With strong future prospects, the stock has been trading near 12-year highs.
Universal remotes. One thing we're not skimping on is TV time, and California-based Universal Electronics has benefited from several trends: the proliferation of TVs and video recorders, the growth of high-definition TV, and the transition from analog to digital signals. Universal makes remote control devices for big cable companies like Comcast, Time Warner, and Direct TV, specializing in the technology that allows one gizmo to communicate with multiple types of electronics. When cable subscribers upgrade their service, there's a good chance they get a new remote furnished by Universal. The company also sells its technology in retail stores under the Audiovox name. Revenue is up 12 percent since 2007, according to Capital IQ, and with HD penetration in homes still relatively low, Universal is one company whose future looks vibrant.