Economy recovering, but recession's shadow is long
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.
EDITOR'S NOTE — The Great Recession has been over for nearly a year and a half, and the economy is slowly growing again. But many of the drastic changes that Americans made in how they spend money have endured — and may be here to stay, some economists think. In a three-part series, The Associated Press examines the state of the American consumer.
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 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. They are trying more store-brand products for things like 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 list.
— The wealthy are spending again, but their behavior is much like everyone else. They are buying more timeless and classic goods: watches and handbags that won't go out of style quickly. They are even — gasp! — 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 experts say the changes from the recession of 2007, 2008 and 2009 could last.
"This was a massive cultural event for our society," says 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."
The impact is hard to overstate. 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 things directly to people.
The new patterns of spending represent a radical turn from the boom years of the last 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," says 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 in six Americans now receives 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," says David Rosenberg, chief economist and investment strategist at the Toronto-based money management firm Gluskin Sheff.
This stressful economic climate isn't just affecting 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.
Brady still springs for luxury labels like Chanel, but she's snubbing the "it" handbags in favor of clothes and accessories that have staying power beyond a season.
She won't buy a new dress for every occasion, and will be wearing a Lanvin gown bought for a charity event last year to a few parties this year. And for the first time, she bought a peach-colored Chanel bag at a second-hand store, saving $2,000.
"I do think my mentality is more need-based now," says 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 times I go to a ball? That's not happening." Brady is also buying more items at charity auctions — not only to save but to give to others.
Tempered spending by Americans of most income levels means the economic recovery is having a harder time gaining steam. Rosenberg says that at this point of the economic cycle — two years and 11 months since the recession began — things should be much better.
Retail sales are off by 2.6 percent since the recession began in December 2007. That's a stark contrast to the last 60 years. At this stage in an economic recovery, retail sales on average were up 25 percent, according to Gluskin Sheff. Retail sales include food, autos, clothing, furniture and electronics.
Decelles, of Jacksonville, acknowledges his spending was more careless a few years back. Saving was barely on the radar. Now he eats out far less, doesn't entertain much and spends little time shopping.
"Things certainly feel a lot different now," he says, "than they did back then."