Consumers reflect on big-spending era

A decade-long party winds down, at least for now

Write a satire of consumer culture before 2001, and it might include more than a few characters like Jan Freeborn.

Over the past decade, the North Kingstown, R.I., resident and her eight closest friends have hired a limousine for a day in December, driven into Boston, and shopped with an eye for luxury.

Junkets from past holidays have yielded mink coats, jewelry, and eveningwear.

That was then.

This year, the corps of women had nothing to show for a Monday afternoon of browsing through Boston.

"We keep looking at things and deciding they cost too much money," says Ms. Freeborn. "When you have these [sorts of things] already, materialism means less to you."

Freeborn is one of millions of Americans who turned a corner this year in their buying behavior. Some were hit directly in their pocketbooks, either laid off from work or drained of nest-egg savings because of Wall Street losses.

But many more have, along with Freeborn and her friends, developed a kind of distaste for consumerism.

By 2000, a strain of antimaterialism began to broaden significantly in the US, experts say - a backlash to the frenzy of consumption that seemed to be the background music of 1990s American culture.

Sept. 11 accelerated the shift. Wide-open spending, encouraged by rising salaries and bulging stock returns, became almost unseemly as more conservative values came to the fore.

As 2001 nears an end, many Americans appear to be spending their discretionary income with an air of caution, or not at all.

Yet many observers view the change as little more than a brief intermission in a decade-long consumer party.

"The reality is, people are still just working like crazy to sustain their lifestyles," says Michael Johnson, a marketing professor at the University of Michigan Business School. "We all talk about simplifying our lives, but I don't see many people doing it right now."

Many consumers trimming their budgets this year are doing so out of necessity, responding to minuscule raises in salary, the threat of layoffs, or actual job losses.

Bill Thies, owner of Sound Hound Stereo in Caldwell, Idaho, says sales of consumer electronics at his store have slowed to a crawl after annual profit gains of 30 percent the past five years.

The cause: Layoffs at Hewlett Packard and Micron Electronics have drained the community of much of its discretionary income. "Some days, all that's running along the street are tumbleweeds," says Mr. Thies.

Some communities have been more insulated from economic trouble. "Minnesotans don't believe in recessions," says Rick Wing, manager of Happy Sleeper Furniture in Rochester, Minn., a city where economic activity is anchored by the Mayo Clinic.

Nationally, however, consumers' concerns have registered. Retail sales dropped 3.7 percent in November, according to the Commerce Department, and consumer confidence dropped 32 points between August and November, according to the Conference Board, a business research group.

Some observers insist that consumers will continue to moderate their spending, even after recessionary fears blow over.

For some, such moderation has become an agenda. Simplicity movements and Christian consumer groups preaching austerity have grown in the past year, experts say.

"There's a broader movement questioning our whole national ethos of consumption very strongly," says Eric Arnould, a marketing professor at the University of Nebraska.

But what interests many observers of consumer behavior this year is the deep-seated propensity of Americans to spend, come what may. It isn't always a negative trait, many argue. Indeed, it has the benefit of bolstering a slumping economy.

Even after Sept. 11, families' spending has remained relatively steady. In the third quarter of this year, households increased their spending 1 percent even as the economy contracted at a rate of 1.3 percent.

Sales of automobiles, furniture, electronics, and sporting goods were especially strong this fall. Existing-home sales increased 5.5 percent in October and a record number of families refinanced their mortgages in 2001.

The University of Michigan's survey of consumer sentiment has registered an uptick three consecutive months, even as economists officially proclaimed that the nation was in the midst of a recession.

The spending is positive, social critics say, as long as it does not lead to the high-flying consumerism of recent years.

Juliet Schor, author of "The Overspent American," says that through the latter part of the past century Americans turned to consumption as a way of defining themselves at a time when social organizations were losing influence in middle-class life.

Her antidote to unbridled growth in the years since: Reestablish social relationships.

"People need to be involved in new social relationships as an alternative to spending 'lonely time' in the mall," says Ms. Schor. "Our best hope is to connect around activities other than shopping."

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