Consumers Still Spending, But More Cautiously

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Disappointing results from some of the nation's largest retailers are among factors driving stocks lower this week. Consumers haven't stopped spending their money; they're just spending differently.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's keep in mind, though, that consumer spending has not completely stopped. This is, after all, America. Consumers are still going to the store, but they are being careful. They're spending differently from the way they did when the economy was in better shape. And NPR's Yuki Noguchi has more.

YUKI NOGUCHI: Britt Beemer talks to thousands of shoppers. He interviews them to research what's going on retail. So he has a pretty good sense of what consumers are thinking. He says all but the very richest Americans are watching what they spend. The rest of us? Well, we're choosing independent stores over national chains. Why? Because independents have more flexibility to let consumers bargain.

Mr. BRITT BEEMER (Researcher): And they say, look, if I buy two of these, any discount can I get today? I mean, the worst thing the person can do is say no. They can't eat you. So I mean consumers are being much more aggressive in trying to negotiate prices, because every few dollars they save, at least it lets them buy another gallon or two of gasoline.

NOGUCHI: Beemer says in addition to driving hard bargains, 61 percent of shoppers now make shopping lists, nearly double the number that made lists two years ago.

Mr. BEEMER: Shopping lists are a way that many consumers will kind of put a governor on themselves, saying I won't go any faster than this. I won't go any further than this. I want to make sure I spend only - I only buy these items, because I can't afford to spend any more this time.

NOGUCHI: Membership discount clubs like BJ's, Sam's and Costco are doing well, because they sell discounted gas and because more shoppers are willing to buy in bulk, and then give the freezer a workout. As for Beemer, he's foregoing his annual wardrobe makeover.

Mr. BEEMER: I usually buy, you know, two or three suits every year and this year I've bought none. So my tailor is very unhappy.

NOGUCHI: He's got plenty of company. Half of women shoppers this spring said they're not shopping for clothes.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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