Consumers wary about spending
Earlier this week the Commerce Department reported that inflation-adjusted consumer spending was its weakest since September 2005, after two massive hurricanes slammed into the Gulf Coast, disrupting oil supplies and sending gas prices skyrocketing. Also this week, all the major auto makers reported sales declines for April, with U.S. light vehicle sales falling 7.6 percent compared with April 2006. Even Japanese carmakers like Toyota, which have steadily been grabbing market share from U.S. auto companies, were hurt by the sales drop that many blamed on rising gas prices and the slump in housing. Last month, the New York-based Conference Board said its Consumer Confidence Index dropped to 104.0 in April, down from a revised 108.2 in March. The April reading was the lowest since August, when the index was at 100.2. The Labor Department said growth in worker productivity and wages slowed in the first three months of this year. And Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation’s largest retailer, said that April’s selling environment will be tough. Rival Target Corp. also said its April sales were coming in “much weaker” than expected. SAN DIEGO – Craig Gardner is eating at home more to save a few bucks. He cringes at paying $100 to fill his truck with gasoline, so he no longer drives with a full tank. The 30-year-old National Guardsman from Fayetteville, Ark., has taken the cost-cutting measures even though he is earning – and spending – more money than he was a year ago. Consumers such as Gardner are showing flashes of frugality as high gasoline prices and shrinking home equity make shoppers count every penny. Among the worrisome signposts are: It’s hardly all gloom and doom for consumers, though, and some analysts say the wariness has yet to trigger alarms about a broader economic downturn. Personal income rose a healthy 0.7 percent in March. And while the Labor Department reported Friday that the unemployment rate rose to 4.5 percent in April on sluggish jobs growth, it was a small uptick from March’s 4.4 percent rate, which matched a five-year low. “We expect some deceleration in consumer spending but the consumer will continue to be the mainstay of the U.S. economy,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at consulting firm Global Insight. He predicts consumer spending will grow about 2 percent in the second quarter. The weakness may be limited to certain industries, like autos or construction, and to specific companies, some analysts argue. Circuit City Stores Inc. blamed poor television sales for an anticipated first-quarter loss, and Tweeter Home Entertainment Group Inc. recently said it was closing 49 of its 153 stores. But both electronics retailers have struggled against larger, nimbler rivals Best Buy Co. and Wal-Mart. Auto sales plunged because manufacturers aren’t making the right cars, not because home prices are slumping, said Joseph Brusuelas, chief U.S. economist at IDEAglobal, a research firm. “Consumers are buying plenty, it’s just that they no longer want to buy the fuel-inefficient cars that Detroit makes,” he said. Gas prices hovering around $3 a gallon nationwide for regular are causing some consumers to change their habits.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!