- Associated Press - Sunday, November 7, 2010

NEW YORK | Layaway, once the province of the poor, has gone mainstream. At the Mall of America in Minnesota, shoppers dart in for just one or two things. In New York, socialites do the unthinkable: They wear the same ball gown twice.

During the Great Recession, people made drastic changes in how they spent their money. They stopped treating credit cards as cash. They learned to save and learned to wait.

Now the recession is over, at least technically, and the economy is growing again, at least a little. But many changes in spending habits that most Americans first saw as temporary have taken hold, perhaps for good, some economists say.

This is the reality of the new American consumer — focused, cautious and tactical.

In Jacksonville, Fla., Bernie Decelles and his wife both have jobs and own their home. They recognize that the economy is still fragile, though, and that they work in industries still struggling. They scrutinize every purchase they make.

“It used to be if we saw something, and liked it, we bought it,” says Mr. Decelles, a salesman for a company that makes storage equipment. “Nowadays, no way.”

In dozens of interviews nationwide with shoppers, retailers, manufacturers, economists and analysts, the Associated Press identified key changes in consumer behavior that have endured after the recession. They include:

• Americans are buying brands and shopping at stores that they shunned before the downturn. They are trying more store-brand products for items such as detergent and beer. Goodwill and consignment shops are attracting customers across the income spectrum, and people are putting big-ticket items on layaway rather than whipping out charge cards.

• Consumers are taking a surgical approach to shopping, buying only what they need, when they need it. Pantries are no longer filled with weeks’ worth of food, nor closets with clothes bought seasons in advance. Shoppers are visiting fewer stores, both traditional and online, and getting only what’s on their shopping lists.

• Wealthier Americans are spending again, but their behavior is much like that of everyone else. They are buying more timeless and classic goods: watches and handbags that won’t go out of style quickly. They are even recycling some of their most expensive clothes and wearing them twice.

These behavioral shifts aren’t at the extremes of the Great Depression, which produced changes so drastic that many who lived through it adopted frugality as a lifelong habit.

Still, some analysts say, the changes from the recession of 2007, 2008 and 2009 could last.

“This was a massive cultural event for our society,” said John Gerzema, a branding executive at marketing and advertising firm Young & Rubicam and co-author of a new book about the changing ways we spend money. “Eighty percent of Americans were born after World War II, so essentially this is our Depression.”

Consumer spending represents 70 percent of economic activity. Every business feels the pullback in some way, and it’s more pronounced for those that sell directly to people.

The new patterns of spending represent a radical turn from the boom years of the past decade. Americans up and down the income ladder piled on credit card debt and used their homes as ATMs by taking out home-equity loans to pay for third cars, clothes and far-flung vacations.

During that time, the savings rate plunged to nearly zero. Americans accumulated debts that far exceeded their incomes. Household debt, including obligations for mortgages and credit cards, rose to about 140 percent of disposable income, double what it was before the boom years.

Credit was easy, and money seemed readily available. Until it wasn’t.

“We saw a period of consumption that was unusual and unstable,” said Jarrett Paschel, vice president of strategy and innovation at the Hartman Group, a consumer research firm in Bellevue, Wash.

A plunge in housing prices set off the economy’s slump. Most Americans were left financially stressed in some way. Millions of people abandoned all but the necessities; for some, the necessities became luxuries.

The worst recession since the Depression ended in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a group of academic economists that officially declares the starts and ends of recessions.

Americans’ psyche hasn’t recovered. An index of consumer confidence from the Conference Board has been in a tight range from the high 40s to high 50s. A reading of 90 indicates a healthy economy, and that level has not been seen since December 2007, the month the recession began.

U.S. households lost 17 percent of their wealth over in the past three years, more than $10 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. The labor market remains in shambles, with nearly one in 10 Americans unemployed. One-sixth of Americans now receive some form of government assistance, including food stamps and extended jobless benefits.

You may not see soup lines, but only because “the soup lines are in the mail,” said David Rosenberg, chief economist and investment strategist at the Toronto-based money management firm Gluskin Sheff.

This stressful economic climate isn’t affecting just Americans who are struggling to get by. Those who are more fortunate also have a new approach to spending.

Before the financial meltdown, philanthropist and socialite Allison Weiss Brady didn’t think twice about dropping $20,000 each season on posh accessories. One prized possession she bought at the height of the boom? A $4,950 Fendi lizard handbag.

She still springs for luxury labels such as Chanel, but she’s snubbing the “it” handbags in favor of clothes and accessories that have staying power beyond a season.

“I do think my mentality is more need-based now,” said Mrs. Brady, who lives in Florida and is a vice president of marketing for Florida Dental Benefits, a dental insurance company. “Am I going to show up with a new pair of diamond earrings every time I go to a ball? That’s not happening.” She also is buying more items at charity auctions as a way to save and to give to others.

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