Americans save more, spend less. Will it last?

Evidence of a new consumer mindset keeps piling up. Today's New York Times front page reports Americans are becoming savers. When they shop, it is for necessities. They are spending less on impulse purchases.

"We have gone in a radically short time from conspicuous consumption to conspicuous saving," Anne Brouwer senior partner at Chicago-based retail consultants McMillan/Doolitle, LLP, told me last week. "Everybody, retailers included, recognizes this is a major change -- lasting change."

As the Times reports, a patent attorney in Austin now grows her own vegetables; a Macy's saleswoman says people are running in and out of the store with only the basics they need, no more. The Times marshals evidence that this is part of a change in consumer behavior that will last after the economy gets back on its feet.

We have seen the signs out there all along: Penny pinching parents have made the back-to-school season dicey for retailers. And early indications are that the holiday season will be a hard sell, too.

Nearly every retailer reporting results for the second quarter either fell short or met Wall Street's profit expectations by cutting costs and inventory. The very few that managed to post a win, like The TJX Cos., (TJX) were stores that clearly played as the alternative to expensive stores.

The depth and width of this recession make it different than the recession-lite dip we experienced after 9-11. Then, the government asked consumers to open their wallets and give the economy a boost. Americans complied and the recession was over by the time economists finally agreed there had been one.

Not this time. Cultural mores are shifting. Being unemployed doesn't have the stigma it used to. Shopping at thrift shops now gets you admiration, not pity.

Even American youth, those self-involved champions of brand-name shopping, have not been shielded by the reality of this recession, says Brouwer. With all the media and social networks they're exposed to, they are very aware of the economic conditions and what caused this credit crunch, so they may actually grow up thriftier than their parents.

Since consumer spending makes up to three-fourths of U.S. economic activity, this cultural shift could be bad news for the economic recovery. But given that it was a credit crisis that got us in this mess, maybe learning to live within our means is a good thing.

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