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Getting desperately creative in the downturn

A growing number of Americans are reluctantly dipping their toes into a surging undercurrent of the rough, financial ocean. Call it “the recession market.”
Duane Hoffmann /
/ Source: contributor

With three kids, four months of unpaid bills and a home teetering on foreclosure, Jenny hopes salvation lies in a precious slice of bubblegum-scented cardboard.

She’s praying to be rescued by a baseball card.

Specifically a 1975 Nolan Ryan card formerly cherished by her late father but now dangling on eBay, priced at $2,500 and punctuated by Jenny’s tale of woe.

“It’s a long shot, but it’s all I’ve got,” says Jenny, who lives near Greenville, S.C., and asked that her last name be withheld to protect her daughters who are 6, 9 and 11. The single mother is employed but fell behind, she said, during an eight-month medical leave. She had no health benefits at the time.

“My dad’s ball cards are probably the only thing I have that’s worth anything. It is very hard for me to let go of them. My dad loved baseball. I love to look at them and just remember,” Jenny says. “I think my dad would want me to sell them. He loved his girls, all four of us. I am doing this for my children.”

Jenny has reluctantly waded into a surging undercurrent of the rough, financial ocean. Call it “the recession market.” Found primarily at online sales and auction sites like eBay and Craigslist, it is an economy of the grim and also the quirky, blending desperation, dark humor and — depending on your perception — savvy marketing or cold opportunism.

Simply plug the word “recession” into the eBay or Craigslist search boxes and you’ll instantly be browsing used iPods, children’s violins, even snapshots of family puppies that are offered up explicitly to “pay the rent” or “save our home.”

In Santa Rosa, Calif., Stephen is selling on Craigslist a heart-shaped diamond engagement ring that he originally bought 10 years ago for his then-girlfriend. His price: $500. “Even though I no longer need it, I don’t want to sell it,” he wrote in his ad.  “But I need to … darn recession.”

Health and dental care are even morphing into bad-times bargaining chips. In Miami, a 33-year-old masseuse has offered on Craigslist to swap hours of body rubs to any “compassionate” dentist who can provide her with two porcelain veneers and a crown. She’s offering the same deal for any plastic surgeon who can supply free liposuction.

Memorabilia marking the economic crisis — especially any trinket that comes with its own punch line — is emerging as a hot commodity, too. For sale on the Internet: Lehman Bros. ball caps ($70), “lucky recession horseshoes” ($20), and “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” T-shirts ($15.99).

And of course, there are some apocalyptic goods strewn across eBay and Craigslist: water purification kits, survival guides, military radios and, for $49.98, maps to help “beat the recession with gold prospecting locations in 26 states."

“Even though some people might be out of a job, they’re still buying this item,” says Ryan Smith, of Cranberry Township, Pa., who sold 700 gold maps on eBay in 2008.

But the recession market’s sad face continues to be people like Jenny who share their stories of financial misery as they simultaneously peddle their treasures.

“Is there anyone so kind that they would help a stranger in need?” Jenny wrote in her eBay listing. “You will not only be buying a card, but a second chance for me and my kids.”

“I am not happy with my situation,” Jenny acknowledged in an e-mail interview. “I hate asking anyone for help. But I have no other choice. Times are hard and a little bit scary for all.”

Business author Jay Conrad Levinson says he’s never detected such a lofty level of fear in the marketplace — and he’s been studying seller and buyer behavior since the early 1970s when he wrote his first book, “Earning Money without a Job.” 

“I didn’t see as much frantic and desperate activity then as I do now,” said Levinson, author of the best-selling “Guerrilla Marketing” series. “This is stretching people to the utmost.”

And that has convinced many sellers to strip away their pride and privacy by divulging their personal troubles to the entire online marketplace, Levinson said. On the other hand, it’s not a half-bad marketing tactic.

“That puts a lot of people on (the seller’s) wavelength because a lot of people have their own tales of woe right now,” Levinson said. “They want to be able to reach somebody they can relate to” and who can, in turn, understand their suffering. Hints of that same consumer psychology can also be found in everything from retailers’ “going out of business” sales to the hand-written pleas held up by homeless people on city corners. Sympathy sells.

“It takes this kind of desperate economy,” Levinson said, “to create that kind of desperate creativity.”

Likewise, many entrepreneurs who smell blood in the financial waters are seeking to scoop up anxious consumers craving extra income. This explains the last layer of the “recession market” — scattered throughout eBay and Craigslist are hundreds of offers to help you launch your own “recession-proof business.” With just a phone call and a small investment, these entrepreneurs claim, you could be turning a profit by hawking foreign cars, preparing tax returns, towing stranded motorists or placing ads on Google. For $29,995, says one Craigslister, you can even start a lucrative “entertainment” enterprise that includes a Web site, software and DVDs. The business? Pornography.

Perhaps because the market is so flooded by these offers, however, just one person has responded to retiree John Holmes’ pitch to place people in a “recession-proof business” for only $5. The former owner of a car-detailing operation, Holmes pledges to teach clients how to make $10 to $20 an hour by running their own waterless car wash with very little overhead.

“It’s really a going business, but it surprises me that people aren’t even willing to at least investigate, to give a call and say, ‘Hey what have you got?’ It’s a mystery to me,” says Holmes, who lives in the Atlanta area. He speculates that while many people are hurting, much of this generation is too lazy to grind out a few hours of extra work to pay the bills.

“What I see a lot of is: ‘Will you give me a ride to the unemployment office?’ " Holmes says. “I get the sense they want to take the path of least resistance.”

“That’s sort of a cynical view,” responds Stephen Hoch, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.  He contends more folks aren’t flocking to the start-your-own-company offers in part because many consumers don’t believe they’re in any real financial trouble.

“A lot of people are still fooling themselves in thinking they’re immune somehow (from the crisis),” Hoch says. “Also, I think people are more skeptical about things (on the Internet).

“Then again, when it comes to skepticism vs. desperation, it’s not clear who wins there.”

If you ask Jenny, desperation wins.

Although she has agreed to include six Pete Rose baseball cards with her beloved Nolan Ryan, only one offer has come along so far, for $50. She declined. But she thinks the Hall-of-Fame right-hander can still deliver for her family.

“If I could sell the cards for at least $2,000, I could breathe easy for a while.” Jenny says. “We are riding on a wing and a prayer.”