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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.

December 31, 1989|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

Electronics

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.

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