We keep talking about consumers. I decided to talk to them, instead.
Specifically, consumers who've seen their incomes take a nosedive.
Where are they shopping this holiday season? How much do they plan to spend?
"I think we're probably going to spend about half of what we spent last year," says Bill Westfall, a minister at Boise State's Impact Ministries.
Westfall and his wife, Leah, have two daughters, and their income depends largely on support from individuals and churches. "Our supporters have been hit financially, they've lost their income," says Leah.
"It's a tough thing for them, and it's a tough thing for us."
So the Westfalls have set aside $500 for Christmas, and they aren't buying anything without hunting online for the best price first.
They weigh the benefits of low cost versus free shipping at places like Target , Wal-Mart , and Amazon.com .
Leah also checks for good deals every time she shops for groceries or goes to the drugstore. "I wander through stores and look to see what's available. I don't necessarily buy, but I do look."
The best deal they've found so far is $100 from JP Morgan Chase for opening a checking account. "We put our $400 in it that we've set aside for Christmas spending, and they gave us $100 for opening an account," Bill Westfall says. "So we've got our budget set for $500 for Christmas."
Hundreds of miles away, Ann Brenoff is also hunting for bargains, this time at the Artifac Tree Thrift Store in Malibu. Yes, there is a thrift store in Malibu, and this former long-time reporter for the Los Angeles Times discovered it's a wonderful place to get low prices on high fashion.
"This is Malibu, and a lot of people contribute," says Brenoff, who lost her job in March. "I bought a cashmere sweater with a Saks label still in it for $5."
Brenoff is a master of finding the best deals.
Her tactics include:
1) Before going to a specific store, go to that store's Web site and type in the word "coupon". She did that for Banana Republic , "and got 35 percent off a great pencil skirt."
2) Use your AAA membership for extra savings at premium outlet malls. "If you go to the office (at the mall) first, they'll give you a coupon booklet, which is good—each store offers different discounts in it."
3) Ask about a seniors discount (eligibility could begin at 50!). "Banana Republic, incidentally," says Brenoff, "they offer senior citizens a ten percent discount, and I qualify!"
Brenoff says she's always been "a recreational shopper...but it's taken on a different feel for me now." Before she lost her job, her family took lavish vacations. "We took the children to go see the Pyramids...now, we're going to go up to Mammoth and go for some great hikes." She says Hanukkah will be a scaled-back affair this year. In fact, it was last year, too. "The kids got to pick out one thing that they wanted, and we opened little presents the other days."
For these two families, are their new bargain hunting habits permanent?
"I don't see any reason to go back to being frivolous with what we have," says Leah Westfall.
Brenoff's take? "If Macy's isn't having the one-day sale, they don't see me."
Finally, both families are focusing on gifts of time rather than money. "Our idea of entertaining now is to have people come over for dinner, the whole family," says Ann Brenoff, "and, generally, we make it a pot luck. Everybody understands." As for the Westfalls, "Even though we're cutting back on spending a little bit, we don't want to cut back on the time we're spending together," says Bill, who is also trying to save some money for a January mission trip to Kenya. "It's still really important in these tough times to give of ourselves."
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