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People practicing spending habits honed in recession

The Associated Press

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 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 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 list.

• The wealthy are spending again, but their behavior is much like everyone else’s. 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.”


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