this i believe (3) (2007)

The United States has been a consumer nation for as long as I can remember (which doesn’t say that much, but that’s still awhile). However, a recent visit to the mall on a Saturday night showed something quite alarming: there was just about no one there. I can see why you would think it’s asinine that I would call such an observation “alarming,” but since when do people not go to the malls on Saturday? Don’t get me wrong – I was happy for the most part because little teenage girls are really annoying, but what happened? Going to the mall has been a staple in my youth, if not the entire American teenage culture, since long ago. Perhaps this dearth of shoppers serves to illustrate the changes we are undergoing today, like some can just not afford to hang out at the mall every week or risk embarking on a shopping spree anymore. But let’s be realistic: this was just one mall one Saturday night; there are still many people who continue to live their lives as if nothing has changed, as if nothing is changing. Americans appear to be unaware of the drastic changes in the world, which is increasingly detrimental to themselves and to those around them.

There are about ten billion things going on right now that probably directly affect us all, but we choose to not see it. I can list these ten billion things, but they’ll probably feel like an overly repeated, redundant recap of the recent news. Oh, the brave American shoppers are being hit with the housing bust, the credit crunch, higher fuel and food costs, and a weakening labor market. But it might strike you more to know just how many people are affected, how close we are to them, and how we, too, could be joining the ranks soon.

The sudden pullback raises the likelihood that the country may be experiencing a rare decline in personal consumption, not just a slower rate of growth. Such a decline would be the first since 1991. There are increasing signs that, beginning in December, Americans significantly cut back on personal consumption, which accounts for 70 percent of the economy. A slew of consumer companies — high-end stores like Nordstrom and Tiffany, and middle-of-the-road ones like Target and J. C. Penney — reported a pronounced slowdown in growth last month, and in several cases, an outright crash in business. Gia Trumpler, 37, a travel consultant who lives in Manhattan, shops at luxury chains like Saks. But she is trimming costs where she can by bringing lunch to work from home, rather than eating out. “Everything just feels more expensive to me now,” she said, including the cost of heating her apartment this winter.

Of course, these stories don’t pertain particularly to us, as most of us don’t pay bills, but we might feel the blows quite soon. Most of us are well off enough to afford to live the lifestyle we were accustomed to ten years ago, but a word of caution is needed here. It seems that most of us will fill up the gas tank without checking the price or continue to watch movies when we should be saving. The unemployment rate rose to 5.1% in March, while the private sector lost jobs for the fourth month in a row. A major problem is that people listen to the news about unemployment rates but don’t really care because they understand that those who are unemployed are not them. They don’t realize that they are very much susceptible to being laid off the very next day, and having nearly no savings to fall back on can be a scary thing. As blunt as this is, we have to be at least aware of the changes now, so it’s not too late when our parents no longer have a job.

You can’t argue that the signs aren’t there. Over the last year, even as low-wage and middle-income consumers have cut back, the wealthy have spent freely, keeping high-end chains insulated from the economic turbulence – that’s expected. However, that all started to change in December, as shoppers held off on buying $300 designer shoes and $500 dresses. Store sales fell 4 percent at Nordstrom. And Tiffany, the upscale jeweler, said the number of purchases at its stores dropped last month. At the same time, the number of overdue payments on American Express cards is surging — and this among well off cardholders who charge up to $12,000 a year on each card.

The big exception is gasoline. American Express and the Consumer Federation of America say that consumers are buying just as many gallons as ever, but paying more for them, and that has forced cutbacks in other purchases. Moreover, there are some bright spots now in consumer spending. Sales of sports gear and electronic gadgets — particularly GPS navigation devices and flat-panel television sets — have risen over the last three months. While high-end department stores and luxury shops that have done well in the past decade begin to show dramatic signs of revenue decreases, the general public continues to fill up on gas and purchase GPS systems and flat-screen TVs. Perhaps people should consider alternative forms of transportation and not buy five flat screens at the same time. But for the most part, I just want people to be aware, at the very least. Know what you’re buying at the moment – don’t do it simply out of habit, and know how much it costs. This I believe.