Why Rich Consumers Will Dominate Spending in 2013

Customers carry an Apple Inc., iMac computer in front of an Apple Inc. store in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Friday, April 19, 2013. Apple Inc., is expected to release earnings data on April 23. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
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By Robert Frank

The consumer economy may look weak. But the affluent and wealthy consumers are ramping up their spending -- and that could help drive the broader economy this year. Two new studies show that wealthier consumers plan to increase their spending despite higher taxes and a generally skeptical view of economic growth and government.

A study from the American Affluence Research Center looked at the top 10 percent of consumers by income who account for more than half of consumer spending. It found that the majority of them plan to spend the same or more in 2013 as they did in 2012.

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A separate survey from the Harrison Group and American Express Publishing found among the top 10 percent of earners, 25 percent plan to spend more on luxury this year -- up from 15 percent last year. Among the top one percent, nearly a third plan to spend more, up from 21 percent last year.

The main reason: rising stocks, better incomes and more job security.

While the wealthy remain fairly pessimistic about the overall economy and country, they are increasingly bullish on their own fortunes and finances. Fully 55 percent said their household assets have improved, while 41 percent say their incomes are higher.

About two thirds say the performance of the national government is worse than last year and more than half say America's reputation in the world is worse.

Jim Taylor, vice chairman of the Harrison Group, said that the affluent have high savings rates and generally feel insulated from the problems of the broader economy.

"When you look at their balance sheets, they're in the black and looking very robust," he said.

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That doesn't mean, however, that the wealthy are throwing money around with reckless abandon. For many, memories of the recession still linger. Harrison Group found that today's affluent consumers come in two species: "worth dominant" consumers and "deal dominant" consumers. Jim Taylor, vice chairman of Harrison Group, said that "worth" consumers buy based on quality, craftsmanship and service and are expected to spend $58 billion on luxuries this year.

The "deals" consumers have been shaped by the recession and are looking for discounts. Taylor said they are driven by resourcefulness, self-reliance and a deep sense of financial responsibility.

"The lessons learned from the recession continue to dominate purchasing strategies in some of the country's most successful households," Taylor said. "They're not going back to unreasonable self-indulgence."

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