Economic signals still mixed at HIRI conference

Arlington, Va. -- The data was flying fast and furious here at the Home Improvement Research Institute's (HIRI's) Spring Conference. 

The series of seminars carried the theme "Understanding Today's Home Improvement Industry" and kicked off Wednesday morning with a detailed examination of some unpleasant and lingering macroeconomic trends. Other charts presented by the day's seven presenters picked up where last year's conference left off by establishing a worst-is-behind-us view of the home improvement industry.

"I think the main message we heard is the market is improving," said Fred Miller, managing director of HIRI. "And it's often the smaller projects or the spontaneous emergency projects that are helping to boost home improvement spending."

Michael Fratantoni, VP research and economics for the Mortgage Bankers Association, pointed to the slightly improving picture of employment -- predicting the unemployment rate would slip to 8.5% by the end of 2011, and dip under 8% by the end of 2012. Still, a return to employment normalcy will probably have to wait until 2015, he said.  

"We have seen an improvement in the job market above what I had expected six months ago," he added.

With starts slumping at 585,000 in 2010, the MBA's housing starts forecast calls for a slight improvement to 595,000 in 2011, and a more significant jump to 850,000 in 2012. 

Mary Myers, director of custom research in the home industry sector for The NPD Group, presented research from NPD's active panel of 750,000 consumers that showed the percentage of people planning projects in March 2011 is at 49.0% -- that's up from 48.3% last year and unchanged from the figure two years ago.

The NPD Group's Economic Perception Indicator showed mixed results in its recent March reading. "While we are in a better position than we were in March 2009, consumers are still concerned," she said.

And what would a research conference be without mention of social media? Jim Longo, VP client development and marketing for iTracks, asked that question, and then addressed it. He described social media as a tool that's here to stay and an effective method of identifying influencers. He added: "It's important to understand how your brand is being viewed on Facebook and Twitter."  

The daylong HIRI event attracted about 70 research professionals -- members as well as non-members -- from a wide variety of home improvement companies. HIRI is a non-profit organization that pools resources to provide high-quality industry research for members.