New frugality shows up in retail figures

Wal-Mart employee Barbara Kokensparger scans clothing items at a store in Bowling Green, Ohio.

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Kai Ryssdal:
First though, we have to get through the downer that is the retail sector.
Last month, retail stores in this country had their worst showing in more than 30 years.
It's not just the thrifty who are avoiding the malls.
Sales at luxury stores tumbled hard too, down nearly 20 percent from a year ago.
A lot of that could have to do with smaller stock portfolios, I guess.
But Marketplace's Sam Eaton reports it looks like there's a psychological shift underway as well.


Sam Eaton: Call it the "new frugality." Wal-Mart was the sole bright spot in a month of dismal sales. That couldn't be worse news for luxury retailers like Saks, which posted nearly a 17 percent drop in sales last month. Michael Niemira is chief economist with the International Council of Shopping Centers. And he says even the richest consumers have limits.

Michael Niemira: One is the ability to spend and two is the willingness. And it's really the willingness to spend that's been shaken at the high end.

Diminishing stock portfolios may be one reason that willingness has declined. But Mary Lou Quinlan of the marketing firm Just Ask a Woman has this explanation.

Mary Lou Quinlan: You look as if you're flaunting in the face of financial ruin.

Quinlan says there's a growing recognition among consumers, even those with the fattest wallets, that they went too far. Harvard marketing professor Nancy Koehn says that realization may reshape America's retail landscape.

Nancy Koehn: This is a great moment of reckoning for the household economy at all levels of the income stream.

She says the days of conspicuous consumption are gone. But Target's $50 knockoff's of $1,200 designer handbags isn't necessarily what shoppers will be snapping up.

Koehn: My own best guess if you made me bet on it would be that we'll see value be much more tightly associated with home, family, hearth. Things that seem stable when a lot around us feels uncertain.

Koehn says that means gifts like bake-at-home cookie sets and candlesticks will be much more popular this season than flat-screen TV's and $800 shoes.

In Los Angeles, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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