What People in the U.S. Look Like



It is inherently difficult to define the socio-economic and demographic composition of the entire U.S. in one full swoop. It takes companies like the $1.1 billion Esri (Environmental Systems Research Institute)—a supplier of Geographic Information System software (GIS) and sophisticated database analysis and compilation systems, founded in 1969—to break down into specific groups the more than 320 million people who live in this country. One of the ways Esri does this is through a market segmentation system it has developed over 35 years called Tapestry Segmentation.

We talked with Lynn Wombold, Esri’s chief demographer and head of Tapestry, to get a good sense of what Tapestry is all about. Wombold has more than three and a half decades of experience in population estimates and projections, state and local demography, census data, survey research and consumer data.

The Mother of all Classification Systems
In very basic terms, Tapestry is nothing more than a “classification system,” Wombold says, adding that she and a team of economists, statisticians, demographers, geographers and analysts create Tapestry with demographic, geographic, and consumer data. The system analyzes the effects of growth and decline in the last decade, using Census data, surveys from GfK MRI (a leading producer of media and consumer research), and Experian data services on millions of consumers and households across the country to segment the country into groups.

“The whole point of the system is to identify consumer markets in the U.S. population”— currently identified by Tapestry as 67 markets spread across every American neighborhood, to be exact, that fall under 14 “Lifemode Summary Groups”  and six “Urbanization Summary Groups.”

There is definitely a lot to chew on here, everything from more than 14.6 million households identified as “Cozy Country Living” (empty nesters in bucolic settings, half of whom live in the Midwest), the largest Lifemode group;  to the second largest group of more than 13.8 million “Gen X Urban” households (Gen X married couples, along with a growing population of retirees); to “Upscale Avenues” (prosperous, married couples in high density neighborhoods) along with “Uptown Individuals” (young urban singles on the move), who combined comprise more than 11 million households. The bottom two of the 14 Lifemodes are 4.6 million “Next Wave” households (young, diverse, hardworking families living in urban areas) and more than 1.9 million “Scholars and Patriots” (highly mobile Millennials who have recently moved to attend school or serve in the military).

The Urbanization Summary Groups share similar locales, from the urban canyons of the largest cities to the rural lanes of villages or farms. The most populous and fastest-growing urbanization group is “Suburban Periphery,” with almost 38 million households made up mostly of commuters who value low density living, but demand proximity to jobs, entertainment and the amenities of an urban center.

When all this data is sliced it diced, it says a lot about who we are, where we were and where we may be heading.  Wombold recently outlined some of the major population, economic and lifestyle drifts in a special report she authored titled What’s Trending in 2015: The Generation Gap.  Here are some of the major takeaways:

  • While the drop in oil prices resulted in savings at the gas pump, those savings were not spent, as retail sales showed no increase.
  • New construction remains slow.
  • There are 81 million Millennials, making them the largest generation (six million more than Baby Boomers).
  • In the 70s, the Baby Boomer generation equated to an increase in households by 17 million. A comparable increase in Millennial households has not occurred, with an increase of only 11.2 million households. This was due in part to the Great Recession. “The economic lift expected when a large generation reaches adulthood and sets up housekeeping is still pending.”
  • While unemployment rates have dropped, labor force participation rates are declining for most of the country (with exceptions) due primarily to Baby Boomers retiring. This trend should result in changes in population distribution (see Esri interactive generations gap map).
  • Increased renter occupancy has increased rent in many areas resulting in disproportionate spending on rents relative to only modest gains in income.
  • Overall, economic change is not yet equating to better opportunities for Millennials, who also have record-breaking levels of college debt. Trends remain mixed with uneven growth and uncertain consumers.
  • Income and home values have not returned to pre-recession levels.

Much More than Identifying Potential Customers
Overall, Tapestry is utilized primarily by businesses to delineate where their current and potential customers reside. In addition, governments, academics and nongovernmental organizations frequently use the Tapestry segmentation system for garnering analytic knowledge to make critical decisions.  For example, the Tapestry system is an important tool for city, town and village planners from across the country to discover the best places to build parks, playgrounds, healthcare facilities, schools, senior centers, etc. “It does not just identify what people purchase, it identifies what they like, what their activities are, what is important to them,” Wombold says.

For instance, one of the seven subgroups of the 13 million households that make up the “Middle Ground” Lifemode group are more than 1.6 million households labeled as “Emerald City.” These are thirtysomethings whose socioeconomic traits include being well educated individuals that research products carefully before making purchases. They buy natural, green, and environmentally friendly products. They are very conscious of nutrition and regularly buy and eat organic foods.  They use cell phones and text message frequently.  They enjoy learning new things and are interested in the fine arts and music.

What Your Zip Code Says
For an easy way to get a clearer idea of what your neighborhood looks like (or one you are thinking about moving to), see Tapestry’s “Zip Lookup.”  Users simply type in a Zip Code to see demographic and lifestyle information showing the three primary market segments in the area along with comparable data on income, age, and population density.

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