Difficult times altering how some people shop

The Baltimore Sun

The economic downturn is putting a new twist on spring cleaning.

Tamme Wisinski discovered how much unnecessary stuff she had amassed after losing her job in January. Looking to raise some money, the 36-year-old Chicagoan began going through her closets, discovering clothes and books and jewelry that she says she "went nuts purchasing" before she found out that her company was shutting down.

She is selling the goods online at Craigslist, marking her first foray into the secondhand marketplace. And the experience is making her rethink the way she shops.

"In the past, I'd go crazy," said Wisinski. "Instead of buying one top, I'd buy several in different colors. Or if it was on sale, I'd buy it whether I needed it or not. Now I've learned to be much more reasonable about what I need and don't need. Even after I do get a new job, I'm going to be a little more reserved in my spending than in the past."

Americans love to shop. Indeed, an entire industry sprouted to handle the clutter amassed in American households: colorful bins from the Container Store, woven baskets from Pottery Barn and a profusion of closet organizing services. Now economic and social forces are combining to stifle the decades-long buying binge.

Not only is money tight with food and gas prices rising, but credit is tougher to come by and homes are no longer available as an ATM. At the same time, the spread of eco-consciousness into mainstream culture is shining a spotlight on waste and prompting many consumers to reconsider how they shop.

Saturated society

"Early 21st-century America is the most materially saturated society in global history," said Jeanne Arnold, an anthropology professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, in a study of how working families use housing spaces.

In fact, finding a place to store all their possessions has become "an overwhelming burden" for most middle-class families, the study found.

Real Simple, one of the most widely read consumer magazines, captured the mood in its April cover story, "Too Much Stuff: Six Ways to Clear the Clutter." The publication, launched in 2000, typically focuses on cleaning and organizing strategies.

The shift comes none too soon for Benjamin Barber, political theorist and author of Consumed. Barber argues that an economy that sells people goods they can't afford and don't need is not sustainable. He asserts that capitalism has been flipped on its head as companies produce needs in order to sell the goods they create.

"In the minds of consumers, there's an awful lot of fat that could be cut back without hurting themselves," Barber said. "We're not talking about people who can't afford clothes for their children or food for their families. There is a growing sense that consumers have had that there is an awful lot of wasted spending."

Julie Abes walked down Chicago's Armitage Avenue on a weekday afternoon with two friends, arms filled with purchases. The women came to Chicago from Atlanta to go to a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show and do some shopping at upscale boutiques, but they were buying less than they have in the past.

Abes spent $325 to gas up her car last month. And she faces rising food prices every time she goes to the grocery store. She can still afford to shop for fun, but she finds herself holding back.

"I think twice now before I buy something and ask if I really need it," Abes said.

During any economic slump, consumers re-evaluate how they spend their money, but retailers say this downturn appears to be deeper and more dramatic. A dozen retailers have filed for bankruptcy protection since the fall, including Linens 'n Things Inc. on May 2.

Store closings

Home Depot Inc., the nation's largest home improvement store, said this month that it plans to close 15 stores for the first time in the company's 30-year history because of poor performance. Starbucks Corp., AnnTaylor Stores Corp., Gap Inc., Charming Shoppes Inc. and Talbots Inc. are likewise closing hundreds of stores.

But retailers and economists are starting to wonder if this current downturn is bringing about a longer-lasting shift in the consumer mind-set.

Carol Chlaimoun, owner of Azizta, a laser hair removal spa in Chicago, is shopping for a less expensive wedding dress, turning off lights when she's not in the room and avoiding department stores like Macy's and Lord & Taylor in favor of discount chains like Forever 21. She has also stopped driving every week to Gurnee Mills outlet mall, about 45 minutes away, in an effort to save gas.

Chlaimoun says she changed her consumer habits out of economic necessity. Her business has declined 30 percent to 40 percent this year as consumers cut back on discretionary spending. But even if she has a good month, she said she's not going to shop as much as she used to. Her relatives from Lebanon come to Chicago frequently to visit and marvel at how many possessions Americans have.

"They see how much stuff we use and they say, 'You shop too much. You have too much food in the fridge. Do you really need that?'" Chlaimoun said.

The "American mania" to shop has led to the doubling of consumption of goods in the United States between the 1950s and the 1990s, the UCLA report said. Consumer spending hit a record high in 2007 at 71.6 percent of the gross domestic product, up from 60.8 percent in 1952. At the same time, Americans in total saved about 8 percent of their income in the 1950s and save nothing today.

It's a trend that Standard & Poor's economist David Wyss doubts will reverse any time soon, as the craving for new things seems to be ingrained in the American psyche.

"I have full faith in Americans' ability to continue to live beyond their means," Wyss said.

Jane Carroo, owner of Clutter Coach Co., is more hopeful. She has seen a pickup in her personal organization business as the economic downturn prompts even well-to-do households to come to terms with their spending habits.

"We've all been caught up in this American consumer frenzy of collecting, collecting, collecting," Carroo said. "That's not healthy for us or our planet."

Sandra M. Jones writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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