Lip­stick and takeout food are not a panacea for dwin­dling retire­ment accounts and the anx­iety of global eco­nomic woes.

But they can serve as mood enhancers for con­sumers in today’s down economy, said assis­tant mar­keting pro­fessor Nancy Upton, an expert in the effects of mood on con­sumer behavior. This is has been the case during other periods of eco­nomic strain, including the Great Depres­sion, as well.

Upton says con­sumers under pres­sure still want to feel good, so they buoy their spirits in little ways. They eschew the major pur­chases, like auto­mo­biles, homes, and luxury items. Instead, they buy quick pick-​​me-​​ups, like lip­stick or takeout food, or spend their money on prac­tical items that can be jus­ti­fied, she says.

During the Depres­sion, we saw some­thing referred to as the ‘Lip­stick Effect,’ which showed an increase in the con­sumer pur­chase of cos­metics, espe­cially lip­stick,” she says. “What we saw was a con­sumer trying to make them­selves feel better through small, indul­gent, hedonic consumption.”

Today, some sim­ilar pat­terns can be observed, she adds.

L’Oreal cos­metics con­tinues to report strong sales, as do fast-​​food restau­rants like McDon­alds, she says. And jus­ti­fi­able expenses for “risk averse” con­sumers have driven the pur­chase of snow blowers to record highs, she adds. “Reces­sion makes people more risk averse,” she says. “We’re seeing the pur­chase of snow blowers is off the charts right now. People are buying so many $2,000 snow blowers that I under­stand Home Depot is run­ning out of stock.”

Unlike a luxury good, a snow blower is a jus­ti­fied expense, one that plays into increased nesting trends that also occur during reces­sions, she adds. “If you’ve lost your job, there’s a ten­dency to spend more time at home. We tend to see an increase in home-​​related pur­chases, which could include kitchen goods, and in-​​home craft items,” she notes.

Also entering the con­sumer mix is a wealthy seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion that has been unaf­fected by the eco­nomic down­turn. Upton notes that Fer­rari is having a good year.

And locally, one high-​​end retail store reported to her that same-​​store sales fig­ures have stayed the same. Although there are fewer shop­pers, they’re buying more.

The lion’s share of shop­pers is striking a com­pro­mise with their pur­chases, she says. Rather than go to a high-​​end restau­rant, they may grab takeout on their way home from work. “They know it’s cheaper to eat at home, but they’re dri­ving home at 7 o’clock at night because they had to work late, and they’re looking for a way to pick up their mood,” Upton says. With the Lip­stick Effect of the Great Depres­sion, a woman would attempt to mood reg­u­late by stop­ping off at a drug store and picking up a red lip­stick, she says.

Upton, who joined Northeastern’s fac­ulty in 2007, has authored sev­eral papers on con­sumer mood and behav­iors. They include, “Should I stay or should I go? Mood con­gruity, self-​​monitoring and retail con­text pref­er­ence,” pub­lished in 2007 in the Journal of Busi­ness Research, and “Putting Your Best Face For­ward: The Impact of Cus­tomer Mood on Sales­person Eval­u­a­tion,” pub­lished in 2006 in Journal of Con­sumer Psychology.

Forth­coming is “Cus­tomer Expe­ri­ence Man­age­ment in Retailing: Under­standing the Buying Process,” in Journal of Retailing.

Upton, who earned her doc­torate at Har­vard, says moods that drive con­sumer spending are not always intu­itive or rational. “The Wall Street Journal had a big article on con­sumer spending and noted that it dropped long before there was any eco­nomic evi­dence that there was going to be a problem,” Upton says. “Some con­sumers have an irra­tional risk-​​aversion behavior because they’re antic­i­pating a drop in their own eco­nomic status, whether it’s real or not.”