Credit: Illustration: Barry Blitt

If you own a home improvement company, you've probably had to work harder during the last year than ever before.

Is the worst of the recession past us? Predictions to that effect would be pointless. If anything, events of the last year demonstrate that the world is less predictable than we'd like to have believed.

In August 2008 consumer spending surged to record levels. Then, in the fall, with the economy tanking, it dropped abruptly. Consumers kept their wallets in their pockets. And those wallets for the most part remain there. Saving is in. Spending is out.

You know all about this. It's more difficult to get people interested, harder to get them to "pull the trigger." It's especially tough selling big-ticket items with financing.

This change in attitude toward spending ? blame it on unemployment, tight credit, the drop in home values and home equity, and simply fear ? has weakened sales at many companies. But notice that most of them remain in business. That's because the owners, seeing sales go backward, often for the first time, were able to quickly, if painfully, adjust to changed circumstances. They turned their marketing practices upside down, reduced overhead, and added new products or services that consumers needed and could afford to pay for without financing.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) tax credits proved a big help by getting home­owners thinking about windows and roofing. They also provided home improvement companies with a way to start the conversation.

The good news is that the tax credits don't expire for another year, financing may be more available by mid-2010, and the end of the recession will likely bring with it pent-up demand for home improvement products. And if people plan to stay in their homes longer, all the more reason to invest in the comfort and energy efficiency of those homes.

But it's probably also true that when the recession is over, the American consumer will be more like the recessionary consumer ? unwilling to financially extend him- or herself, insisting on value for money spent ? than the consumer of the pre-recession years.

Many home improvement companies have already figured out how to market and sell to that consumer. They've put the spotlight on customer service and have learned to ask for cash sales. All that will make them better, stronger, and ready for growth when the wallets come out again.

Jim Cory, Editor