The Curious American Consumer: Notable Trends for Housing, Shopping, Work, Fast Food, and More

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As the numbers attest, life has changed quite a bit recently for homeowners, workers, shoppers, families, and even for rich people. And it’s not all bad: At least TVs are cheaper, right?

UP: Shoppers doing their legwork online.
A Pew Research survey says that in 2010 roughly 58% of American consumers research products or services online, up from 49% in 2004.

DOWN: Number of stores visited by the average mall shopper.
A research firm reports that today’s typical shopper hits three stores on a trip to the mall, on average. Today’s “surgical shopper” differs from his browse-happy counterpart in 2006, when the average shopper poked through the aisles of five stores on a typical trip to the mall.

DOWN: TV prices.
Consumers just haven’t been buying as many new TVs as retailers and manufacturers expected. To clear the glut of inventory, prices are dropping substantially—and much earlier in the holiday shopping season than they normally do. The Boston Globe reports that a TV price war is inevitable, while the WSJ gives a rundown on some of the more aggressive pricing plays, like $199 for a 32-inch flat screen. But let’s take a step back. Why have consumers been slow to buy TVs at higher prices? Could the answer have to do with the fact that so many people just bought new, still-functioning (hopefully) flat-screen TVs within the last couple of years? Or that consumers realize that early adopters are suckers, and that waiting just a few months to make an electronics purchase is absolutely proven to save a bundle?

UP: Spending on pets, computers, RVs, and TVs.
Wait, didn’t the TV price trend indicate that we’re buying fewer TVs? Not exactly. USA Today cites data showing that spending on TVs in the first eight months of 2010 was actually up 35%. That’s compared to the year before, when spending was way down. And even though spending on TVs is up this year, apparently consumers haven’t been buying enough to satisfy manufacturers and retailers, who feel the need to drop prices to prime the pump. Sales of computers, RVs, and pet products are also up 22%, 10%, and 7% respectively.

DOWN: Spending on life insurance, dental care.
Data from the above story shows that there has been a decrease in spending in about one-third of the 350 categories tracked by the government. Consumers have still been spending less in categories such as life insurance, dental care, automobiles, casino gambling, tobacco, day care, and education.

DOWN: Spending on restaurants, clothing.
A Citibank survey cited by the LA Times says that 71% of Californians are splurging less at restaurants, while 69% of Californians report spending less on clothes. We’re talking California here, where people probably spend way more than average on these categories, but still: These are some big numbers. By contrast, very few Californians say they’ve scaled back on spending related to cell phones or Internet usage. (Let’s not get crazy.)

DOWN: The size of retail stores.
The NY Times covers the trend of store downsizing, with many stores opting for smaller retail space—even putting up temporary walls and utilizing a fraction of the store—to avoid the overwhelming department store feel, and also to save money because with less space they need less merchandise and fewer employees.

DOWN: Spending at ethnic music stores.
The Baltimore Sun reports that specialty music stores selling CDs from El Salvador, Greece, and everywhere the world over have witness a serious decline in sales over the past few years. Store owners swear the economy is to blame, not the digitalization of the music industry: Most ethnic music store customers don’t have computers, and now, apparently, they also don’t have much disposable income to spend on music from their homelands.

UP: Difficulty (and anger) at the return counter.
“The age of the easy return policy may be drawing to a close,” says SmartMoney. Not only have return policies gotten tougher at many retail stores, but even when returns are allowed, customers are being asked to fill out forms and give all sorts of personal information before a refund is granted.

UP: Elderly Americans who can’t retire because of debt.
Between 2000 and 2008, debt doubled for the average household headed by someone 55 and older, up to $66,000. It’s safe to say that the financial situations haven’t improved for many of the folks who were in debt in 2008.

UP: Number of “discouraged workers.”
The number of Americans who are unemployed and want jobs, but have stopped looking for work (because they’re “discouraged”) recently hit a record high: 1.2 million. Minor quibble with the phrase: If you’re not working, should you still be called a “worker”?

DOWN: Number of public employees at the state and local level.
A recent count revealed that there are 19.2 million state and local workers around the country—258,000 fewer than there were a year ago. While the state and local workforce decreased (by 1.3%), the number of federal employees rose 3.4%, up to a total of 2.2 million.

UP: Number of federal workers earning more than $150K.
Not only are there more federal workers, there are a lot more of them making serious money: In the last five years, there has been a tenfold increase in federal employees earning $150,000 or more, from 7,420 workers hitting that mark in 2005 to over 82,000 in 2010.

UP: Paychecks of CEOs of big U.S. companies.
Factor in salaries, bonuses, stock, and whatnot, and the CEOs at America’s 456 biggest public companies now pull in an average of $7.23 million, up 3% from a year ago.

UP: Paychecks for college presidents.
In 2004, no college president earned $1 million. By 2008, 30 leading executives at American colleges took home at least $1 million, according to data from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

DOWN: College kids studying abroad.
For the first time in more than two decades, the number of U.S. students earning college credits abroad has decreased. The 2008-2009 school year marked the first time since study-abroad data has been tracked that there wasn’t a rise in students heading overseas. A little over 260,000 students went abroad that year, down from 262,000 the year before. Why the decrease? The economy, stupid. Families are having a hard enough time paying for college at home, let alone incurring extra costs by going abroad.

DOWN: College kids studying period.
According to one study, the average student at a four-year college studied 14 hours per week. By contrast, in 1961 the average college student hit the books for 24 hours every week.

UP: Worries about ability to pay for housing.
According to a Washington Post poll, 53% of people say they are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about their ability to pay the rent or mortgage—that’s up from 37% who answered either way just two years ago.

UP: Homes for sale that reduced asking prices.
The percentage of homes on the market that had at least once price reduction hit an all-time-high in October: 27%.

DOWN: Homeownership rates.
The Census Bureau reported that for the July-September 2010 quarter, 66.9% of households owned their homes. The last time the homeownership rate was lower was 1999, when it was 66.7%.

DOWN: Size of American homes.
The median home size in the U.S. is now roughly 2,100 square feet, down from 2,300 in 2007. And homes could shrink further: A USA Today story points to a new concept home called “A Home for the New Economy,” which measures 1,700 square feet. Funny: The home for the new economy is similar (in size at least) to the home for the old economy, because American homes in the 1970s were typically 1,500 to 1,700 square feet.

UP: Number of kids living with their grandparents.
Largely because of the recession, there has been an 8% increase in children living with grandparents—the second year in a row to witness such a rise.

UP: Widows and older single women living together.
Also largely due to financial considerations—and the fact that people (women especially) are living longer and longer, and need more money because of it—there has been a new “Golden Girls” trend, with older women increasingly likely to live together to share living expenses.

UP: Rich people eating fast food.
Here’s another weird economic indicator: Wealthy Americans spent 24% more on fast food in the second quarter of 2010, compared to a rise of 8% spent on fast food by the average consumer. Why are rich folks jonesing for grease? It seems to be their way of scaling back: Instead of dropping $100 per person at a fine dining establishment, they’re ordering a #7 at the counter and feel thrifty because they’ve pocketed the difference.

UP: Fast food ads viewed by kids.
Then again, maybe rich folks are hitting up fast food joints just to appease their kids: A new study shows that the fast food industry spent $4.2 billion on advertising in 2009, and that the average preschooler saw 2.8 TV fast food ads daily. Older kids saw even more ads: 3.5 ads daily for children ages 6 to 11, and 4.7 ads daily for teens. And these numbers have risen over the years, as the report states: “Compared to 2003, preschoolers viewed 21% more fast food ads in 2009, children viewed 34% more, and teens viewed 39% more.”

DOWN: Giving to charity.
Wealthy Americans aren’t only saving money by choosing fast food over fine dining. They’re also saving by giving away less. Per CNNMoney:

Average charitable giving by wealthy households sank 34.9% to $54,016 last year — down from $83,034 in 2007, after adjusting for inflation.

What’s Up? Also: What’s Down, and How the Economy Has Caused a Rise in Domestic Violence, Cheap Liquor Sales, and More