1980s Shoppers Charged Into a Brave New World of Goods : Consumer products: Electronic gadgets, fitness fads and yuppie indulgences attracted attention and sales during the past decade.


The 1980s were the years of buying dangerously.

With twin recessions dispatched early on, this was the shopped-till-we-dropped decade. T-shirts proclaimed: “I can’t be overdrawn. I still have checks left!”

It was the decade of the Post-it note and the personal computer.

It was an electronic decade of high-tech doodads that made our lives more programmed in the name of convenience.

The ‘80s brought us glitz and flash, MTV and USA Today.

Gourmet babies made childhood the ultimate spending opportunity for baby boom parents, who splurged on designer baby outfits and expensive strollers.


Consumers strove mightily to get healthy only to indulge themselves with all manner of fattening fripperies. Use a Dove Bar, go to home gym jail.

The following are just some of the items that captured our imaginations and our spare change during the decade. Some existed before 1980 but didn’t really take off until after. Others burst into view and then were gone.


Electronic products ate through the decade like a Pac-Man gone wild.

Factory sales of electronic products leaped to an estimated $256 billion-plus in 1989 from $100.6 billion in 1980, according to the Electronic Industries Assn., a Washington-based trade group.

“With electronics, the quality has been improving and the price has dropped significantly” on a range of products, said EIA spokesman Mark Rosenker. “I can’t think of any other industry that does that.”

It’s hard to remember that the personal computer actually appeared in the mid-1970s. But the IBM PC hit the market in 1981 followed by Apple’s Lisa in 1983 and the Macintosh a year later, and things were never the same again. Later in the decade, personal computers went from the desktop to the laptop, with several portable versions.

Many products moved from the industrial arena into the reach of the private consumer during the 1980s, Rosenker said.


“Personal computers--who would have ever thought 40 years ago or 30 or 20 years ago that people would need one in their home?” Rosenker said. The same is true for such products as the videocassette recorder, the cellular telephone, the photocopier, the facsimile machine and pagers, among other things.

“Now drug dealers, prostitutes, flight attendants and kids who need to be called home for dinner will use a paging device,” Rosenker said.

The fax machine, which only in the past few years moved from the offices of big corporations to small firms, homes and even automobiles, has changed the way that a lot of people do business.

At Fringe Benefit Planning, a Newport Beach-based consulting firm, the fax machine is “busy all day long,” associate Lynda Badum said. “I wonder how we ever lived without fax machines.”

The videocassette recorder turned us into time shifters and TV commercial zappers. Camcorders, lugged to every major family event and to vacation spots around the world, became reminiscent of Mom and Pop’s old Super-8 movie camera.

Electronics made the world a little smaller and a little lighter during the decade. Sony introduced the Walkman in 1979 and this year is selling a pricey sterling silver version to commemorate the event. (In contrast, the super-loud, super-large boom box also became popular during the ‘80s.)

Sony also weighed in with the Watchman, its tiny portable television, and the Video Walkman.

The LP record gave way to the CD and CD player, with compact discs providing unmatched sound quality and better durability compared to the vinyl long-playing record.

Telephones became fancier, cheaper, cordless, car-bound (cellular telephones) and airborne (the Airfone). Whimsical duck phones that quack instead of ring, and telephones shaped like fish or golf bags or shoes or whatever, found their niche, as well. And when we weren’t there to accept the call, an increasing number of machines did it for us.

The silicon chip brought new life to the low-tech typewriter, turning it into an electronic marvel that can even alert you to trite phrases and redundancies.

Consumer Products

Other consumer products were aided by the electronic blitz. There was a proliferation of point-and-shoot automatic 35-millimeter cameras that focus and flash without any help from the photographers. One joke dubs them Ph.D cameras--for Push Here Dummy. Disposable cameras were also developed.

The microwave oven was available long before 1980--but who wanted them or the mushy, pale, substandard food that they turned out? But the bugs were worked out and microwaves boomed during the decade, along with accessories and microwaveable foods. Microwave ovens are now in about 70% of homes, according to Richard Lawrence, president of Marketing Intelligence Service, which tracks trends in products sold at grocery and drugstores.

Food processors continued their popularity from the 1970s, but they got smaller and more powerful. Pasta machines fed our fetish for fresh noodles of all types.

All sorts of coffee makers, including the more hoity-toity cappuccino and espresso variety, took up a lot of kitchen counter space in the ‘80s.

Another kitchen toy, perhaps signaling a desire for old-fashioned ways without spending old-fashioned time, was the bread-making machine. All you do is plug it in, load the ingredients and pull out a fresh-baked loaf of bread some time later.

Other popular products included colorful Swatch watches, hair styling mousse and halogen lamps.

On the automotive front, the 1985 debut of the streamlined Ford Taurus--nicknamed the “jelly bean”--radically altered the concept of the family car.

“The Ford Taurus was important not only for what it did for Ford Motor Co., turning around its fortunes, but it focused on the value of design for selling a product,” said C. Martin Smith, associate chairman of the Industrial Design Department at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, an independent four-year college that is one of the nation’s foremost design schools.

The Taurus was not new technologically, but it was packaged well, Smith said. “What they did was physically to do something very exciting that happened to hit a nerve with the American public,” he said.

A similar nerve was struck last summer when the Mazda Miata hit the road. Consumers were willing to pay thousands of dollars more than the $13,800 sticker price to drive one of the sporty little cars home.

Growing families looked to the minivan, led by Chrysler’s Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager in 1983, as an alternative to the station wagon.

“That particular package was something that we had never seen in the marketplace,” Smith said. “It allowed people to buy what was essentially a truck but didn’t drive or feel like a truck.”

Small trucks continued to sell well in the 1980s. Drivers lately have been personalizing their brand names by highlighting certain letters, turning Toyota, for example, into Toy or Oy.


More than 112,000 new items reached the shelves for supermarkets and drugstores during the 1980s, including new sizes and flavors of existing products, said Lawrence of Marketing Intelligence Service, a Naples, N.Y., consulting firm.

Considering that the average supermarket stocks 12,000 types of products, “it just presents consumers with almost an overabundance of choice,” Lawrence said.

The 1980s were “the decade of the 10 F-words,” said Martin Friedman, editor of Gorman’s New Product News, a Chicago-based newsletter.

The “F-words,” he said, are:

Fitness. Vitamin and calcium-fortified foods, the no-preservative trend and fancy “designer” drinking water fell into this category. Low-cholesterol foods got into our blood after studies proved a connection between high cholesterol levels and heart disease. Low- and non-alcohol beverages and so-called smokeless cigarettes attacked two of the country’s big vices. (However, RJR Nabisco’s cigarette, called Premier, was snuffed out early this year after only five months of testing when the company discovered that consumers objected to the taste and smell.)

Fat. Everything low calorie, fat reduced or fat free. Weight Watcher deserts. Lean Cuisine and other reduced-calorie frozen dinners. Aspartame plumped up the artificial sweetener selection.

Fiber. That translated into oat bran, which appeared in products from breakfast cereals to tortilla chips. “If they can put oat bran in it, they’re doing it,” Friedman said.

Fast. Almost every kind of food emerged as microwaveable, to accommodate our hurried society. “Grab it, zap it, gulp it,” Friedman said.

Fresh. Deli departments, bakeries and salad bars made a big splash at supermarkets and will get even bigger in the 1990s, he said.

Fractional. Single-serving items proliferated, from main courses to side dishes to desserts.

Fancy. Gourmet foods and superpremium ice cream supplied calories to burn on the home exercise equipment that everyone bought in the 1980s. We even bought gourmet pet food.

Foreign. Imported foods were up 20% in the past five years, and appetites grew for all foods foreign or foreign-seeming. Thousands of consumers passed the pasta--from carrot-flavored to ziti. Chimichangas and fajitas slugged it out with Thai food and sushi. And while not foreign, regional cuisine like Cajun food also crowded onto our plates.

Famous. Many well-known people used their names to sell food, including Paul Newman (salad dressing, popcorn), Phyllis George (chicken), Tommy Lasorda (pasta sauce) and Mike Ditka (pork chops).

Fun. Chocolate-chip cookies, jelly beans and graham crackers shaped like teddy bears were hot--”all the kind of kids’ foods for adults that have been so popular in the last 10 years,” Friedman said.

Coca-Cola Co. roiled the beverage business by introducing Diet Coke in 1982 and--who could forget?--New Coke in 1985. The first was a marketing triumph, the second a fiasco. That is, until the original formula was brought back after a few months as Coca-Cola Classic to even bigger sales.

Aseptically packaged juices and milk, which stay fresh longer even without refrigeration, received approval from the Food and Drug Administration in 1981. And beer went dry, late in the ‘80s.

Health and Fitness

The decade’s health quest brought expensive athletic shoes and workout duds, with names like Reebok, Nike and L.A. Gear. Home exercise equipment moved well beyond the stationary bike to machines that recreate activities like rowing, cross-country skiing, stair climbing and walking. Exercise videos let us sweat in front of our own televisions with Jane Fonda or the Chippendale dancers.

The scourge of acquired immune deficiency syndrome boosted sales of condoms and spurred the development of AIDS antibody tests and the antiviral drug AZT.

The pain reliever ibuprofen became available over the counter. A new form of birth control, the Today contraceptive sponge, made its way to market.

The graying of America led to many products including the Rogaine hair replacement drug, Retin-A anti-wrinkle cream, paper briefs for incontinent adults and an unprecedented interest in plastic surgery. A trendy monthly magazine called Details even has a regular column on plastic surgery under the heading: “Knifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”


Children were in during the decade as baby boomers reproduced in the so-called Baby Boom Echo, having what were dubbed Yuppie Puppies.

Starting with home pregnancy kits and more sophisticated prenatal testing, parental consumers of the ‘80s also were treated to Luvs gender-specific diapers (pink girls’ diapers with more padding in the middle and blue boys’ diapers with more padding up front).

Strollers went upscale--with Aprica ferrying many a well-bootied infant--and speedy in the form of pricey jogging strollers to be pushed in front of running parents. Designer baby wear was in vogue even though Mom and Dad’s designer jeans weren’t.

Studies found that newborns respond to high-contrast surroundings, and so stimulating black-and-white toys became a must-give shower present. “Baby on Board” signs for cars spawned a wave of imitators along the lines of “Mother-in-law in Trunk.”

For the older set, hot play-things included Cabbage Patch dolls, Teddy Ruxpin, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit.

Video games by Atari and other manufacturers hit big with shoppers in the early ‘80s and then fizzled. But they came back in the late 1980s as Nintendo.

Et Cetera

Mountain bikes, those fat-tired citizens of the bicycle world, became a certified phenomenon during the decade.

The mountain bike “has given new legs--or wheels, I should say--to the biking industry,” said Smith of Art Center College of Design.

“It fits in with people’s life style. There is an awareness about the environment that is coming out at the end of the ‘80s, and the mountain bike kind of typifies that” because it allows riders to get away from city streets but is kinder to the terrain than off-road vehicles or motorcycles, he said.

Back in the busy day-to-day world, organizers under such brand names as Day Runner or Filofax were purchased by millions of harried consumers. Electronic versions that include calculators, address books and memo capability also hit the shelves of gadget shops.

Travel industry executive Barbara Rothschild said her organizer is “my day book and my Rolodex.”

“I don’t know anyone today without one, especially if they’re in business,” said Rothschild, who owns a Brentwood travel agency called Evergreen Travel.

Post-it repositionable notes began as an accident when a scientist at 3M developed an adhesive that could stick and then restick and another employee applied it to paper as a way to mark pages in a church hymnal. But Post-it went on to become the most successful product introduction in 3M’s history.

Car alarms protected more and more autos and trucks during the decade, and interrupted the sleep of more neighbors, too.

The New Age and the Harmonic Convergence introduced the alleged power of centuries-old crystals to a broad market.

The tight and bright newspaper USA Today rolled off the presses, and cable networks took to the air waves. MTV and the music video changed listening and watching habits.

A bank full of financial instruments were popularized, including junk bonds, variable-rate mortgages and zero-coupon bonds.

As for the next decade, a few products are looming that will change our way of relaxing, including high-definition television and digital audiotape machines. Fat substitutes are in the works that would greatly reduce the calories in a whole range of waist-expanding goodies. As for the rest, we’ll have to wait and see.

“There are a host of products and technologies and innovations that are out there that we have come to take as commonplace,” said Rosenker of the Electronic Industries Assn., “and in the next five to 10 years, things we haven’t even thought about will be commonplace.”

STARS OF THE ‘80s In the 1980s, tens of thousands of products came and went. Some existed before 1980 but did not hit it big until after that. Here is a sampling of what was hot during the decade.


personal computers

laser printers



fancy telephones

cellular phones


telephone answering machines

CDs and CD players

fax machines

Sony Walkman

Sony Watchman TV

Video Walkman


electronic typewriters

personal copiers

Consumer products

automatic 35mm cameras

microwave ovens

Ford Taurus

Mazda Miata


small trucks

food processors

bread makers

coffee makers, cappuccino machines,

espresso makers

boom boxes

Swatch watches

hair styling gel and mousse

halogen lamps


fancy frozen dinners

superpremium ice creams


oat bran

low sodium

low cholesterol

low fat

low- and non-alcohol beverages

wine coolers


designer water

microwavable food

aseptically packaged juices and milk

Diet Coke/New Coke/Coca-Cola Classic

exotic food


gourmet pet food

dry beer

smokeless cigarettes

Health & fitness

athletic shoes

home exercise equipment

exercise videos



AIDS antibody tests

ibuprofen (non-prescription)

Today contraceptive sponge



plastic surgery


home pregnancy kits

prenatal testing

gender-specific diapers

Aprica strollers

jogging strollers

designer baby wear

black-and-white toys for newborns

baby-on-board signs

Cabbage Patch dolls

Teddy Ruxpin

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Trivial Pursuit


video games (Atari)

son of video games (Nintendo)


mountain bikes

organizers/Day Runners/Filofax

Post-it notes


USA Today


junk bonds

variable-rate mortgages

zero-coupon bonds