May 28, 2023

Two Families Show an Uneven Rise in Consumer Confidence

But last week, Ms. Sam had already done five rounds of holiday shopping by the time she headed out for Black Friday specials in a suburb of St. Paul.

“The money was not there,” Ms. Sam said of last year. “But this year, I’m very, very confident.”

Americans are feeling better about the economy than they have in four and a half years, data released Tuesday shows. Preliminary consumer confidence results for November by the Conference Board showed an uptick in confidence, with the index rising to a preliminary 73.7, the highest level since February 2008, from 73.1 last month.

Retailers say they are hoping to cash in on that confidence, beginning last weekend with a deluge of discounts and specials meant to draw shoppers into their stores and onto their Web sites.

But while shoppers like Ms. Sam raised hopes that growing confidence might mean increased sales, economists and retail analysts have said many Americans — even some upbeat ones — continue to hold back. Concerns include volatile gasoline prices, the budget deficit and an impasse in Washington over taxation and fiscal policy.

“People are still cautious, and there’s still a lot of uncertainty,” said George R. Cook, professor of business administration at the University of Rochester’s Simon business school.

Recent shopping trips with consumers in regions with particularly high and low consumer confidence suggested some of the challenges retailers are facing. The holiday season is critical to retailers’ profits, and helps increase consumer spending and the overall economy, but while traffic over the Thanksgiving weekend increased, sales in stores fell on that Friday, traditionally the busiest day of the year. And retailers needed to offer steep discounts to draw customers.

While rising confidence seems to move in line with consumption growth, said Amna Asaf, an economist at Capital Economics, “it appears that the small uptick in November’s consumer confidence is unlikely to provide much of a boost to consumer spending. We need to get more certainty about the direction of the fiscal cliff before we can see a marked impact.”

Ms. Sam, the Minnesota shopper, said her economic situation improved significantly over the last year. But things were so tight for Veronica Lynagh, 29, of Columbus, Ohio, that she had put her family on a strict holiday budget. Consumer confidence in the region including Ohio was relatively low, at 62.9 in October, before rising to 76.3 in November.

Ms. Lynagh and her husband, Matt, allotted $700 for the family’s holiday shopping. To help stay focused, Ms. Lynagh created a color-coded spreadsheet to track income and spending. The couple say they will not buy any presents with credit cards, using debit cards only, and will only buy items on special.

“It would be really stupid to pay full price this season when all the stores have such good deals,” Ms. Lynagh said.

For the Lynaghs, the year has required a series of financial trade-offs. Ms. Lynagh quit her marketing job at The Columbus Dispatch to stay home with their baby, born last December. Mr. Lynagh, 30, a distribution manager at an auto-parts supply company, traded in his Dodge Ram for a Mazda S.U.V. to save $250 a month on gas. They have refinanced their home, saving $200 a month, and begun putting whatever they can into savings.

They are worried about the political environment, they said. “Our government is spending money we don’t have,” said Ms. Lynagh, who is starting a job as a marketing consultant.

While Ms. Lynagh minded their daughter after their Thanksgiving meal, Mr. Lynagh drove to a nearby Toys “R” Us, arriving 15 minutes after midnight. He trotted to the nearest uniformed employee and asked where an item on his list, a Fisher-Price animal farm, was located.

The employee guided him to it, but Mr. Lynagh did not bite.

“It’s on the list, but it’s not on sale,” he said. “If it’s not on sale, I’m not buying it.”

Retailers say they are counting on there being more Ms. Sams out shopping in the coming weeks than Mr. Lynaghs — and more places like St. Paul than Columbus. The region including Minneapolis and St. Paul had the highest consumer confidence in the nation last month, at 88.4, which jumped to 93 in the preliminary November figures.

(Consumer confidence is measured on a scale in which 100 represents the 1985 level of consumer confidence; a reading of 90 and higher indicates confidence, and the highest level on record was 144.7 in 2000.)

Ms. Sam, a Ghanaian immigrant, was ready for the holiday season, having paid off her $1,000 Visa bill earlier in the year. An energetic shopper, she hurried through five stores in five hours on the Friday after Thanksgiving. She grabbed a $49 Nook e-reader at Target for her brother in Ghana; a $24.99 Disney Cars bike for her son at Kmart; a $6.88 Disney Cinderella watch for her niece at Walmart; and a $49.99 luggage set from Kohl’s for her mother.

Every time a cashier told her how much she had saved, she squealed with delight.

Ms. Sam said it was all made possible by a grueling work schedule. A nurse’s aide, she took a second full-time job this year, adding an eight-to-12 hour evening shift to her schedule. She now works as many as 100 hours a week, for $13 to $15 an hour. (She took Thursday night off, so she could find some deals.) Her husband has a full-time engineering job.

“Sometimes I get tired,” Ms. Sam said, “and that is to be expected, but I want the best for my son. So I have to work hard for him, just so he doesn’t have to work a double job in order to survive.”

Ms. Sam seemed almost mystified by the extra income this year. “This year there are leftovers,” she said. “We can save money and put some into our son’s account. We still have extra money to spend.”

It was not enough extra that Ms. Sam could indulge after buying presents for relatives: she bought nothing for herself. “I don’t think about me,” she said. “I think about my family. If they’re happy, I’m happy.” She added, “Maybe when I’m done shopping, I’ll give Santa my list.”

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