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Originally published August 19, 2014 at 7:12 PM | Page modified August 20, 2014 at 11:33 AM

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Americans feel better about economy, loosening purse strings

Across the broad middle of the income spectrum, a bevy of indicators shows that ordinary Americans feel better about the economy and are loosening the purse strings.


McClatchy Washington bureau

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BOSTON — Written off in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the U.S. consumer is back. Not quite with a vengeance, but definitely back.

It’s noticeable to Marie Galvin, owner of GALVIN-ized in Boston, where handmade women’s hats — a discretionary purchase — sell for anywhere from $35 to $85.

“This year, since the Kentucky Derby, it all seems out of control. Everybody was shopping for good hats,” said Galvin, who wears her wares on the sales floor. “I think it’s up a good 50 percent from last year.”

Same is true for Ron Lewis, owner of Designer Cabinetry in Newton, Mass., where his customers often spend $40,000 to $80,000 for high-end kitchen cabinets and appliances.

“It’s been a slow improvement until this year, where there has been a marked improvement,” said Lewis. “The people with money have more money than ever.”

Nationally the story is largely the same, whether it’s in the finance-rich suburbs of Charlotte, N.C., the sun-kissed condos of Miami or the most populous state, California, where the jobless rate is falling. Consumption powers about two-thirds of all U.S. economic activity, and it’s noticeably back.

Spending by the rich never tailed off, and it accelerated alongside the soaring stock-market gains of recent years. On the bottom economic rungs, the poor still struggle. So much so that Dollar Tree and Family Dollar recently announced plans to merge to compete against Wal-Mart for what Family Dollar CEO Howard Levine called “a more financially constrained consumer.”

But across the broad middle of the income spectrum, a bevy of indicators shows that ordinary Americans feel better about the economy and are loosening the purse strings. The most obvious example is car sales, on pace to exceed 16.3 million this year.

“It gets better all the time, but it’s not even,” said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with AutoTrader.com.

July retail and food sales are 3.7 percent above July 2013 levels, the Census Bureau reported earlier this month, 6.4 percent higher for autos and other motor vehicles.

Rob Gagne, a longtime resident of the blue-collar Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, feels better about the economy. The jack-of-all-trades employee of an architectural firm is prototypical middle class. But he’s splurging on a $2,100 custom-made bed, and after several years of belt- tightening, he recently treated himself to a cross-country motorcycle trip.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do that. It does take some money to do that,” he said. “I probably could have, but wouldn’t have.”

Jobs are another important signpost for future consumption.

There were 4.7 million job openings in June, the highest level since February 2001, and a signal that companies are more optimistic about their future and want to hire accordingly.

At the same time, roughly 2.5 million Americans quit their jobs last month, the highest since June 2008. That’s a good thing, because it means people feel confident they can take advantage of other job opportunities.

The number of people quitting “is highly correlated with consumer confidence, which is highly correlated with consumer spending,” said Ed Yardeni, a veteran investment strategist.

Another indicator is the Consumer Confidence Index, published monthly by The Conference Board, a business-research group. It finds that people’s confidence in their current situation is finally matching their traditional optimism about the future.

“This is the consumer saying ... it finally has gotten better,” said Ken Goldstein, a veteran economist with the group.

The result? Goldstein said that pent-up consumer demand is about to be unleashed after several false starts.

“Finally, here it is, it’s finally happening,” Goldstein said.

It’s noticeable at Boston’s famous SoWa Open Market, where farmers, artists and merchants compete for dollars in a crowded outdoor market. For the past two years, Matthew MacNeil and business partner Justin Toggle have sold handmade ties, bow ties, dress shirts and luxury travel bags there under their brand name J. Louis Clothing. Men are beginning to treat themselves again, the pair said.

“It’s kind of like a treat to him. We weren’t really seeing that in the beginning,” said MacNeil, who says $25 handmade ties and bow ties are now moving briskly. “I’m seeing a lot more of that. Not so much the $125 shirt or the $175 bag.”

Business is picking up at The Chocolate Truffle in Reading, Mass., welcome news for owner Erin Calvo-Bacci, who had to close two of her three shops after the Great Recession. Customers are buying again, but in smaller quantities of her handmade chocolates than they did before the crisis.

“Sales may be increasing, but that doesn’t mean profits are, because of all the other costs,” she said, adding, “Would that make me want to open up two other stores again? No way!”



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