Power suits and McDonald's... an unlikely combination that makes sense

This is a time of conflicting messages. Power suits and McDonald's are two images you normally don't visualize together, though more and more, they may both be found in the corporate boardroom.

Remember "Dress For Success?" The power suit that was essential to looking professional? Though looking professional never went out of style, there came a day when consultants started telling employers they could motivate their workforce with no-cost perks like Casual Fridays, or even a permanent policy of business casual dress. Human resources said switching to business casual would make your firm more of a family and make people happier to be at work, especially during the long, long days of tax season. Now with the challenges of the economy and competition increasingly severe, is that changing? There's no evidence to suggest that droves of CPA firms have ordered their employees back to more formal attire, but for some individuals, the distaste for the dark suit has been replaced by the fear of the pink slip. You might say they believe they are hanging onto their jobs by the threads of their power suits, and they are going back to the dress-for-success mentality. Some say it's more imperative than ever to go back to formality... though the jury is still out on that one.

It's not difficult to understand the idea behind returning to the power suit. If the boss takes a walk through the office to decide who will stay and who will go, nobody wants to appear less-than-serious about his or her job, even if it means sacrificing the comfort of casual dress. It sounds counterintuitive at a time when thrift stores and Wal-Mart dominate the short list of retail businesses that are thriving, but The Wall Street Journal reported that menswear stores like The Moss Bros Group have considered marketing a "recession-proof suit... as a way to help business professionals look more serious and more indispensable.

So it this the way we are trending? Hadassah Baum, Executive Director of Beta Alpha Psi has her doubts. "To some degree this may be a marketing attempt to get people to buy more clothes." But as a key advisor to accounting graduates just entering the field, Baum does emphasize the importance of more formal attire. At a recent Beta Alpha Psi event she attended in Las Vegas, she noted that the students from the host chapter – Cal State Fullerton – were all dressed to the nines. "People seeking jobs need to stand out in the crowd to prospective employers. One of the ways to do that at this time where business casual has evolved to 'anything goes,' business attire indicates professionalism and seriousness about one's career, especially in the accounting/finance professions."

Baum also asked the keynote speaker at a recent Beta Alpha Psi conference – a partner at a major Indianapolis firm - if he sees the accounting profession headed back to the days of the power suit. His answer ... in his firm, business casual is still the rule within the office, and when his staff goes to the client, the nature of the client dictates the attire, as it always has. In general, the business wisdom to follow, at least for today, seems to be that business casual is still okay as long as you already have a job, but job-seekers may need to step it up a bit.

What does any of this have to do with McDonald's?

As prices rise along with the tension of the general economy, McDonald's – which may be the ultimate in casual – is working its way into the cubicle and the boardroom more and more. Starbucks and other specialty coffee houses have done well in creating a customer base of coffee addicts. Patrons have enjoyed not just the beverages, but also being part of the somewhat high-end reputation of Starbucks. Unfortunately, the recent stores closures and employees job losses at Starbucks are evidence that the $4 or $5 a cup lattes have been one of the many casualties of the recession. So what becomes of the culture of coffee addicts who are already stressed out and who now are also suffering from caffeine withdrawal? Ahhh... McDonald's.

Long before the public read the financial writing on the wall, McDonald's started developing specialty coffees that rival Starbucks for taste and yet sell for a fraction of the cost. The only thing missing is the snob appeal. McDonald's is capitalizing on the lack of snob appeal with commercials that exalt the casual, non-highbrow, affectation-free atmosphere of the golden arches coffee. With the economy and the constant flow of negativity out of the federal government, there is more than enough stress to go around, without worrying about "putting on the dog" by drinking the right coffee.

Whatever your opinion of McDonald's, you have to admit that as they continue to thrive and Starbucks continues to lay off staff and close stores, the hamburger kings saw a recession era opportunity coming and prepared for it, just in time to offer an affordable alternative for a lost luxury. And to top it off, the dress code is come-as-you-are casual.

Starbucks is no slacker in innovation. You might say they created their own consumer base and as the economy gets back on its feet, they may yet find a way to recapture their former devotees. For now, how about backing off the emphasis on coffee sales and stepping up the sales of mugs emblazoned with the Starbucks logo? That way consumers can take their fancy mugs to McDonald's, fill them with good cheap coffee - which nobody has to know - and retain their highbrow Starbucks image. Win/Win!

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