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Shopping for bargains... and buying with cash
’Tis the season for sales, but can the economy count on the newly cautious American consumer?
This holiday season, shoppers are rummaging for bargains and taking advantage of web deals on "Groupon.com."
This holiday season, shoppers are rummaging for bargains and taking advantage of web deals on "Groupon.com."
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as the recession changed consumer behavior?
Without a doubt. U.S. households have lost 17 percent of their wealth since the recession began, in December 2007, and they are struggling to get the most out of what’s left. The recession was “a massive cultural event for our society,” said John Gerzema, co-author of Spend Shift. For the 80 percent of Americans born after World War II, “essentially this is our Depression.” Little surprise, then, that 93 percent of consumers say they’ve changed their spending habits. People are ferreting out lower prices, and often won’t make purchases unless items are heavily discounted. Revenue at Goodwill’s secondhand stores is up 11 percent this year, swap meets are expanding, and the use of Internet coupon sites like Groupon is exploding. After years of growth in gourmet and specialty foods, supermarket house brands are gaining market share, and Kraft macaroni and cheese is back in American pantries.

Will consumers spend again?
They’ve started to, but it’s not like the old days. Most large U.S. retailers announced that November sales were up sharply from the same month a year earlier. J.C. Penney led the pack, with a 9.2 percent increase in same-store sales, but Dillard’s, Macy’s, and Target all had strong showings too. A survey by the National Retail Federation found that shoppers spent an average of $365 over the Thanksgiving weekend, a 6 percent rise over last year, aided by aggressive promotions both before and during Black Friday. (That amount was still less than shoppers spent over Thanksgiving weekend in 2008, when frightened retailers slashed prices in the wake of the financial meltdown.) Brad Wilson, founder of the site BradsDeals.com, says retailers are looking forward to “frugal splurging” — a term that aptly sums up the ambivalence of consumers.

Has shopping itself changed?
Shoppers are going to the mall with a steelier sense of purpose. In 2006, for example, they would visit an average of five different stores per trip; this year it’s just three. Analysts have devised new terms, like “surgical shopping” and “appointment shopping,” to describe this more selective approach. Retailers have adjusted by growing leaner and more efficient. “Cathedrals” of consumption are making way for “chapels.” Nike has stopped building 50,000-square-foot Niketown stores in favor of smaller outlets, and others are pursuing similarly streamlined visions. In the first nine months of this year, ground was broken on 90 percent fewer new shopping centers than in the same period in 2006, and new retail square footage is just one-sixth what it was then. “We have reached the apogee of the big box,” said retail consultant Paco Underhill.

What about Internet shopping?
That’s changing too. Online sales were almost 20 percent higher on the Monday after Thanksgiving than they were a year earlier, though, here again, aggressive promotions played a role. While online sales are growing, they still amount to only about 6 percent of overall retail sales. But the Internet is having another powerful effect on purchasing by making comparison shopping nearly effortless. Amazon and eBay, which have been exerting downward pressure on prices since 1995, now have iPhone apps that provide instantaneous price comparisons simply by scanning a bar code. That’s one reason why many shoppers go to the mall not to buy but to look.

Has everyone cut spending?
The wealthiest, not surprisingly, are feeling considerably less pinched. A rebound of corporate profits, a rising stock market, and another round of record Wall Street bonuses have helped keep luxury sales aloft; high-end designer clothes, fine leather goods, and expensive jewelry are all selling well. But the era of “aspirational shoppers” who often splurged on goods they really couldn’t afford seems to be over. Even consumers who are reducing their debt burdens don’t necessarily feel better off because their homes have lost so much value. Some analysts say it will be a decade or more before those consumers feel secure enough to spend as they did in the past. Others, however, contend that old borrowing habits are already reemerging, with consumers taking out bigger loans to buy cars and the share of subprime auto loans creeping up last month for the first time since 2007. But perhaps the best clue to consumer psychology is found in the small, rectangular heart of consumer finance: The credit card.

What do credit cards tell us?
Credit card delinquency fell by almost 25 percent between the third quarter of 2009 and the third quarter of 2010, in part because fewer people have cards. Some overstretched consumers have had their cards canceled by banks, but others have chosen to do without. This year, 8 million fewer consumers have bank-issued credit cards, accounting for “one of the fastest-growing consumer segments,” according to analysts at TransUnion. Many are using prepaid or debit cards, which don’t expose them to overspending (but still can impose high fees), and buying on layaway is more popular. Some consumers, like Liz Gonzalez, a community-college employee eager to escape debt, are striking out in what, for Americans, is a novel direction. “Cash,” Gonzalez said, “is the route I’m taking this year.”

The paradox of thrift
As recently as 2005, the debt of the average American household exceeded its savings. Today, households are setting aside 5 percent to 7 percent of their disposable income, the highest savings rate since the early 1990s. In the long run, more people saving more money is a good thing for the economy, as the U.S. population ages and more people make the transition from living off their wages to living off their savings. In theory, money saved is money invested in national economic growth. But less consumer spending also means lower demand for goods, which in turn means lower production, excess capacity, and fewer jobs. This is what economists call the “paradox of thrift.” As American households reduce spending to try to live within their means, their thrift may actually hamper the economy’s climb out of the depths of recession.

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