The Evolution of the Customer: The 1990s - Grace Hill
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The Evolution of the Customer: The 1990s

Posted on October 10, 2011 by Grace Hill

As we left the “awesome” 80s, we jumped in with both feet to the new decade. The 1990s were about growth and change, and we persevered some hefty bumps along the way.

The 1990s: The Decade of “Discovery”


The 90s saw the growth of the World Wide Web, which grew dramatically from its inception in 1992. The 90s truly were the electronic age.  The Internet was changing the way we communicated, conducted business, and how we were entertained. Only 15% of American households had a computer in 1989, but this more than doubled in the 90s. Terms like SPAM and ISP found their way into our vocabulary, and we said things like “See you online”.  We often signed off with a 🙂  (smile), a 😉  (wink), or a :-* (kiss).

And everyone had a cell phone!

Scientists discovered how to clone animals, and we released the Hubble Telescope.


There were more music choices available than ever. Latino music grew in popularity, Country became more mainstream, and Grunge appeared.  Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men led the charts, and  Selena was the top Latin singer until her untimely death in 1995.  Other popular artists included Hootie & the Blowfish, Alanis Morissette, Nirvana, Garth Brooks, and The Backstreet Boys. CD burners became commonplace and threatened the music industry, as did free online file sharing services like Napster. Of course, we can’t talk about music in the 90s without mentioning a published study of the decade that showed college students (and lab rats, no comparison intended) improved test scores by as much as 30% after listening to music.

Fashion & Style

For youth, the fashion began with either a grunge or preppie look. In true hip-hop style, boys’ jeans were much larger than what their bodies could hold up, worn low on the hips, and girls looked to have fallen out of the 70s in bellbottoms and peasant tops.  Designers included Liz Claiborne, DKNY, and Tommy Hilfiger.  Casual Fridays became commonplace at the office, and then gradually developed into a more casual work dress code altogether.

53% of companies allowed casual dress by 1998

This was up from 7% in 1992.  The wide-shouldered power suit fell out of fashion and women’s jewelry was much more minimalistic. With the end of the 80s came the end of crazy, pumped-up hair. 90s hair became more natural again: wash-and-wear, messy up-dos and basic ponytails were the order of the day. Although there was a big auburn-hair phase for a few years in the 1990s, and there was the “Rachel” – so named and styled after Jennifer Aniston’s character on the hit TV show FRIENDS.

Film & Television

Televisions were in 98% of the households in the US by 1998, with the average viewer spending seven hours a day watching ‘the tube’, and 3/4 of homes had cable TV.  News and news magazine shows like 60 Minutes, 20/20, and Dateline NBC were popular.

How many of us stayed up late to hear Letterman’s ‘Top 10’?

Home Improvement, Seinfeld, E.R., and yes, FRIENDS, took their fair market-share, too! Mega-movie houses sprouted up with up to 24 theaters in each.  Videos started releasing almost immediately when a move left the theatres. Films that won Academy Awards in the 90s included Dances with Wolves, Forrest Gump, Titanic, Schindler’s List, and Silence of the Lambs.


After the excessive spending of the 1980s, we entered the new decade in a slight economic recession. Rates of alcoholism and drug abuse increased as did rates of depression. Oil prices were on the rise, and there was a sharp increase in interest rates and declining availability of credit. As the 90s progressed, the economic boom that followed led to record low unemployment and minimum wage being hiked to a whopping $5.15 per hour. We all learned to trade stocks on the Internet, and affluence in the US was on the steady uptick. The Dow Jones Industrial Average hit the 11,000 mark in 1999, adding substantially to the wealth of many Americans. The US experienced its longest period of economic expansion during this decade. We traveled 40% more. Interest in health and nutrition increased, but obesity was at a record high.

We just “had to have”

Beanie Babies, Furbies, and Tickle-Me Elmo!

‘Hot topics’ in education were distance learning, uniforms, year round school, and vouchers. An increasing trend in the 90s was for our film stars and successful entrepreneurs to try their hand at politics – including the likes of Jesse Ventura and Ross Perot. The number of multiple births increased five times between 1980 and 2000, and the 1990s saw the first set of surviving septuplets. Audio books became the rage and sales for online booksellers like soared. We were reading Sue Grafton, John Grisham, and Michael Crighton. There was a noticeable “retro” trend in pop culture, which showed up in the rebirth of the Volkswagen Beetle (and other cars) and in movies, such as the release of the prequel Episode I: The Phantom Menace in the Star Wars series. Working from home became more popular towards the end of the 90s.

Apartment Industry

Property management in the 90s had to adapt to the growing number of affluent individuals and families who were choosing apartment living over ownership. These “lifestyle renters” made up a large segment of the market. In response to this burgeoning group of prospects, characteristics such as 9-foot ceilings, garages, upscale appliances, business centers, in-home offices and multiple phone lines came to be expected in new construction. Community amenities like resort style pools, organized social activities and elaborate athletic facilities were also commonplace. Larger apartments were built to meet the demands and needs of this new renter; two- and three-bedrooms gained popularity. Development locations were planned in proximity to major employers, shopping, schools, and major highways and public transportation. In the leasing office of the 1990s, many days were spent “outreach marketing” (i.e. visiting local business owners and major employers). The 90s was the decade of the REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust); by the end of the decade REITS passed Pension Funds as the largest single institutional owner of real estate.

Customer Service

CRM (Customer Relationship Management) history shows that the 90s witnessed great improvement in this area. Companies began to see the benefits of offering perks to customers and potential ones in exchange for relevant customer information or for repeat purchases.

“Can I get your email address, so we can send you coupons?”

Companies also began to regard customer service as a continuously evolving skill rather than a stagnant service to be picked up and used whenever necessary.

Highlights from the 1990s

  • Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the US was thrust into the Gulf War
  • US President Clinton was accused of sexual misconduct
  • “Don’t ask, don’t tell” directed the military enlisted to keep their sexuality a secret
  • Major League Baseball players went on strike and the World Series was cancelled
  • LA citizens rioted when 4 white policemen were acquitted of assault on Rodney King
  • David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult compound in Waco, TX was raided by the ATF
  • Football hero O.J. Simpson was tried but not convicted for murder
  • The US hosted the Summer Olympics in Atlanta
  • The Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed
  • 15 were killed  and 23 wounded by gun-toting teens at Columbine High School in CO

The 90s were both a turbulent and triumphant era – surely a decade we will not soon forget!

Grace Hill’s marketing content team aims to create informative resources that help multifamily and commercial industry professionals elevate their performance. From blog posts and ebooks to infographics, checklists and webinars, the Grace Hill team has a singular focus: creating meaningful and engaging content that resonates with real estate professionals across the industry.    However, what makes Grace Hill so unique is the range of collective experience and collaborative spirit of its marketing content team. A group of talented writers with expertise in the real estate industry, overall management effectiveness, marketing strategy, and operational efficiency, the team provides new ideas to take performance to the next level. As a thought leader, Grace Hill's content team constantly pushes the envelope, experimenting with new resources and tools to keep industry professionals ahead of the curve.  Whether you're a seasoned pro or just starting out in the real estate industry, the content team at Grace Hill is creating resources to help you succeed. Learn more about Grace Hill on LinkedIn.

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