Sunday, April 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Many Americans are being more careful with their spending

At the Goodwill store in Paramus, N.J., Marilyn Kunz shops. The store is one of 100 new spots for the nonprofit, with many in middle-class suburbs. The strategy: Attract not only people in need, but people seeking bargains.
At the Goodwill store in Paramus, N.J., Marilyn Kunz shops. The store is one of 100 new spots for the nonprofit, with many in middle-class suburbs. The strategy: Attract not only people in need, but people seeking bargains. MEL EVANS / Associated Press
At the Goodwill store in Paramus, N.J., Marilyn Kunz shops. The store is one of 100 new spots for the nonprofit, with many in middle-class suburbs. The strategy: Attract not only people in need, but people seeking bargains. Gallery: Many Americans are being more careful with their spending
PARAMUS, N.J. - The Goodwill store in this middle-class suburb of New York was buzzing on a recent weekend afternoon. Shoppers combed through racks filled with secondhand clothes, shoes, blankets, and dishes.

A few years ago, opening a Goodwill store here would not have made sense. Paramus is one of the biggest zip codes in the country for retail sales. Shoppers have their pick of hundreds of respected names such as Macy's and Lord & Taylor.

But the Great Recession has lessened or removed the stigma attached to certain consumer behavior. What some people once thought of as lowbrow, they now accept - even consider a frugal badge of honor.

And it's not just about Goodwill. Americans, even those with jobs, are shopping for brands, buying at stores and eating at restaurants such as McDonald's that they shunned before because they are trying to get more for their money.

At the supermarket, shoppers are buying more store-label detergents, cereals, and other products.

And in a telling trend, Americans, even the wealthy, are turning to layaway more often when they buy expensive items such as engagement rings and iPads. The wealthy are also using layaway more often, a drastic change from the past.

"The old stigmas are the new realities," said Emanuel Weintraub, a New York retail consultant. "Now, people don't have a problem saying, 'I can't afford it.' It's a sign of strength."

At the Goodwill in Paramus, even financially secure shoppers are showing up. One is Heather Dzielinski, from nearby Ramsey, N.J., who had donated things to Goodwill but had never shopped at one of its stores until the Paramus location opened in July.

A pair of L.L. Bean fur-lined slippers for $8, far below the $50 retail price, got her hooked. She thought a Goodwill store would be dark and dingy, but it wasn't.

"This store is a lot different than what I thought it would be, and that impressed me," Dzielinski said during a recent visit.

Thrift and consignment stores are thriving, so much so that some high-end retail stores are carving out space for secondhand goods to offset weak sales of their full-price merchandise.

This behavioral shift is pronounced at the nation's supermarkets. Store-branded groceries now make up 22 percent of total sales compared with 20 percent before the recession, according to the Nielsen Co. The private-label business is worth $500 billion a year, so a 2 percentage point change means $10 billion.

Improved quality has helped drive the growth, but price also plays a big role. Supermarkets that stock almost all store-brands are thriving. One is Aldi, a chain of more than 1,000 stores in the Midwest and on the East Coast.

Six no-name grocery items - macaroni and cheese, potato chips, cream cheese, sour cream, olive oil and guacamole - cost about $10. The same brand-name items cost $22 at the nearby Dominick's.

People are learning to live with trading down on clothes, too. Jaime Palmer of Dallas used to go to Neiman Marcus and spend as much as $300 each on dress shirts by such high-end designers as Hugo Boss and Thomas Pink.

Now, Palmer, a 36-year-old managing partner at an investment boutique, buys from a new label called J. Hilburn, which customizes dress shirts for $120.

As for his suits, he is turning to outlets. "It did have a bit of a stigma for me," he acknowledged.

But the recession made him reassess how he shops.

"My spending patterns will probably be a lot more conservative for the rest of my life," he said.

The search for value is also helping sales at fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's. New research from American Express found that the superaffluent, which it defines as those who put at least $7,000 a month on their credit cards, spent 24 percent more on fast food last spring than the year before.

Rachel Beck and Anne D'Innocenzio Associated Press
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