The final figures for the last holiday shopping season are in, and they seem to confirm a trend that students of the retail industry – and lots of retailers themselves – claim is becoming dominant: Shoppers are spending more and more of their dollars on services – especially those that offer “experiences” – and fewer and fewer on goods.
This Washington Post article handily sums up the evidence – both the data and the views of various retail executives and consultants. Even more telling, it describes the very substantial store closings recently announced by like companies like Macys. Nonetheless, if you look at the U.S. government figures on how Americans spend their money (as opposed to what’s sold by stores), the only significant increase visible in that “experience” spending has come over the last year. And so far, there’s no sign that it’s come at the expense of goods purchases.
The spending figures are found on the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis website, and they’re not only broader than the retail sales numbers (which are kept at the separate Census.gov). They also come adjusted for inflation. They show that, through the third quarter of this year, spending on restaurants and hotels and other forms of accommodation rose by more in real terms (4.45 percent) than overall after-inflation personal consumption (3.15 percent). But spending on “recreation” was up only 1.49 percent. And purchases of goods increased a relatively healthy 3.91 percent – also considerably faster than purchases as a whole.
But maybe the shopping priorities shift only becomes apparent if you look at the entire economic recovery? Not according to these statistics. Since the last recession ended in mid-2009, restaurant and hotel spending has risen by 17.45 percent in real terms – faster than the advance in total personal consumption (14.85 percent). But recreation services spending has increased by only 12.76 percent. And real consumption of goods beat them both – up 23.21 percent.
Nor is there much reason to think that the Great Recession ushered in big change in American consuming away from goods. If anything, quite the opposite. Since it began, in December, 2007, all real personal spending has risen by 11.71 percent, with goods spending leading the way with an increase of 14.94 percent. Restaurant and hotel spending is higher by just 10.54 percent – barely better than the increase in after-inflation overall services spending of 10.17 percent. The figures for recreation services? A mere 7.28 percent improvement.
And revealingly, the growth disparity between goods and the other spending categories is wider still since the start of the century. Between 2000 and 2014 (the last full-year data available), adjusting for inflation, restaurant and hotel spending increased by 25.51 percent, recreation spending by 27.67 percent, while goods spending jumped by 44.16 percent. The goods rise was also much faster than that for services overall (27.60 percent).
These numbers, in fact, challenge not only the claims about changing shopping tastes in the United States. They challenge claims about the entire economy being dominated by services. It turns out that that’s mainly true on the production side – where measured by real value-added (a different but comparable gauge) inflation-adjusted services output was up 31.87 percent between 2000 and 2014. That’s nearly three times faster than the real goods production increase of 10.98 percent. That is, Americans still buy huge and smartly growing quantities of goods. But more and more of them come from abroad.