MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
It's springtime and the crocuses are out and the daffodils are opening up. In good times, spring brings shoppers out, too. Well, a surprise increase in retail spending in March suggests that maybe - maybe - after two years of penny pinching, American wallets are opening again too.
Here's NPR's Yuki Noguchi.
YUKI NOGUCHI: On a blindingly sunny day, Pamela Vestal emerges from an�Urban Outfitters wearing big sunglasses with the sticker still on them.
Are those new glasses?
Ms. PAMELA VESTAL: Yes.
NOGUCHI: What else did you buy in there?
Ms. VESTAL: A purse and a wallet and some shoes.
NOGUCHI: How much did you spend?
Ms. VESTAL: About a hundred dollars.
NOGUCHI: Is that something you wouldn't have done last year?
Ms. VESTAL: Yes. I definitely wouldn't have, not that much, especially this bag, $48, no. I would've looked Wal-Mart, someplace else, something a lot cheaper.
NOGUCHI: Vestal's retail hiatus had spanned a year. She spent less on food and let her wardrobe get stale.
Ms. VESTAL: I just recently started, you know, buying, you know, stuff for spring. I didn't buy a lot during the winter.
NOGUCHI: But now she's even shopping for a house in the Washington, D.C. area. Consumer spending is more than a pastime, it drives nearly three-quarters of the U.S. economy. And it declined sharply during the recession. Manufacturers made less, retailers put less stuff on the shelves and fewer workers on the floor. And economists have been waiting for the moment when that would reverse. With spending up, they're thinking maybe this is that moment, or maybe it's just the nicer weather.
Mr. MARSHAL COHEN (Analyst, NPD Group): March is usually a tricky month to read, anyway.
NOGUCHI: Marshal Cohen is an analyst for the NPD Group. He says it's especially tricky to tell whether last month really marked a retail revival because part of it is just pent-up need. People can only wear old clothes and use broken toasters so long before replacing them. Also, Cohen says, Easter came early this year, bunnies and pastel eggs triggered seasonal buying a little earlier. And after a harsh winter, warmer weather is getting people like Pamela Vestal out buying sunglasses.
Mr. COHEN: A lot of frugal fatigue has set in, where the consumer's saying, I'm tired of not spending and living on a budget.
NOGUCHI: Like, enough about the recession, what about me? Sandy Kennedy has spent a year putting off indulgences, but just recently she had a spring fling with her credit card.
Ms. SANDY KENNEDY (President, Retail Industry Leaders Association): I'm a purse and shoe person, so I've had some fun this spring.
NOGUCHI: Kennedy is president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a trade group. She says sellers are starting to stock more, delayed store openings are getting back on track. And she's noting the return of lifestyle brands at places like Target and�JCPenney that are boosting sales at both chains.
But there are some things that won't come back. Kennedy says during the downturn retailers made themselves leaner. Theyre using software to schedule employees for peak times. They're substituting text messages for paper coupons. And they're putting things in smaller, sleeker packages.
Ms. KENNEDY: So it takes less space, less pallets, less transportation.
NOGUCHI: But Kennedy says paring down only gets you so far. She's waiting for jobs and paychecks to come back.
Since losing his advertising job a year ago, David Muldoon has temped and cut way back. This week he was depositing his last freelance check at a bank in Montclair, New Jersey.
Mr. DAVID MULDOON: I mean, I literally just got a job offer last week. So I don't think it'll probably have an effect on my spending habits for quite a while.
NOGUCHI: For now he's buying a bottle of wine, because his wife also just got a job offer.
Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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