If you need proof that Americans are shopping again, look no further than the pizza boxes stacked in the break room at the DeScenza Diamonds store in Framingham.
Not so long ago, employees in this family-owned jewelry store had plenty of time to go out for lunch. But today, business is so brisk that DeScenza’s is ordering in pizza and other food for employees too busy to leave the sales floor.
“If you’re looking for good signs,” said store manager Siobhan O’Brien, “I’d say this is one.”
With the crucial holiday shopping season getting underway, the American consumer, who sat out for much of the past four years, is finally getting back in the game. Buoyed by improving job and housing markets and gaining confidence as the recovery continues its slow, steady march, consumers are spending again.Home sales are up. Auto sales are up. Retail sales are up.
“Consumers are starting to get their groove back,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, a forecasting firm in West Chester, Pa. “They are more willing to take chances and spend a little more.”
That’s good news for the US economy, which depends on consumer spending for 70 percent of activity. The last recession hit consumers hard, wiping out jobs, home equity, stock holdings, and income, and leaving them burdened with debt run up in boom times. With jobs and credit scarce, consumers spent cautiously, increasing savings, paying down loans, and repairing household finances. As a result, the economy recovered at a painfully slow pace.
Today, more than three years after the recession ended, the American consumer is in much better shape. Personal savings are more than double what they were in 2009, while household net worth climbed 13 percent during the same period, according to the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, household debt declined to less than 11 percent of disposable income from nearly 14 percent in early 2009.
What that means is consumers have more money to spend, and, as the economy slowly improves, more confidence to spend it.
Tony Nardone of Milton spent the past few years in a financial squeeze. When he retired in 2008, he was counting on a part-time job in real estate to supplement his Teamsters pension, but the crumbling housing market undid that plan.
Without that additional income, Nardone, 65, struggled to pay his mortgage, cutting grocery bills, vacations, and home improvements. But today, after refinancing at rock-bottom rates, he has smaller mortgage payments and more to spend on holiday gifts, a night out at a restaurant, or other discretionary purchases. He said he he might even take a trip.
“The economy is a big wheel that turns slowly,” Nardone said. “In the big scheme of things, next year will be better and it will keep getting better. You have to be optimistic.”
At Circle Furniture, an Acton chain, sales have increased 10 percent from last year, according to chief executive Richard Tubman.
Unlike a few years ago, when he felt lucky if customers left the showroom with one piece of furniture, Tubman says many are leaving with two or three — and some are refurnishing entire rooms.
Peggy Burns, the chain’s head merchandiser, noted another sign of improving consumer outlook. In the depths of the recession, customers bought sofas and chairs in browns, muted tans, and earth tones, Burns said. Now, the big sellers are bright blues, oranges, and greens — not to mention hot pink.
“Bright colors make you smile,” Burns said, “and more people are smiling than they were a few years ago.”
Furniture is not the only big-ticket item that consumers are snapping up. Auto sales nationally have reached their highest levels since early 2008, and home sales are at their highest since 2010, according to industry statistics. Home prices and values are also on the rise, economists said, making homeowners feel wealthier and more inclined to spend.
And many are more inclined to go out to eat. Restaurant sales, which rose in each of the two previous years, have climbed another 3.5 percent so far this year, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Restaurant sales are telling indicators of the mood of consumers, according to economists. When times are tough — or threatening to become tough — one of first items cut from family budgets is eating out. Spending on restaurant meals collapsed in the recession, and thousands of eateries, particularly high-end establishments, folded.
“The 2008-to-2009 period was the most challenging in the industry’s recent history,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association.
Brian Piccini, who owns two restaurants in Boston, said his moderately priced Dorchester pub, dbar, weathered the recession well, but sales were slow at his more expensive Back Bay restaurant, Deuxave. But business picked up over the past year, Piccini said, and for first time since Deuxave opened in 2009, the restaurant is almost completely booked for holiday parties.
Still, US consumers have not completely returned to prerecession form, and many remain wary. The unemployment rate, while declining, remains high, at just under 8 percent nationally.
Tensions in the Middle East threaten to drive oil and gasoline prices higher, while political differences in Washington could result in a combination of steep tax increases and deep budget cuts — the so-called fiscal cliff — and send the economy back into recession.
Until recently, the average American wasn’t aware of the fiscal cliff, said Chris Christopher, senior principal economist at IHS Global Insight, an economic forecasting firm in Lexington. But since the election, the issue has received tremendous media attention, and consumers are starting to get nervous.
“Consumer confidence will drop tremendously if the issues of the cliff are not resolved,” Christopher said.
Ballooning student debt, affecting nearly 40 million young Americans, is another roadblock to a complete consumer comeback, Christopher said. Student loan debt, now approaching $1 trillion according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, is weighing on these consumers as they enter what are normally peak spending years of buying homes, cars, and other big-ticket items.
Gloria Cooper, 26, is a leasing consultant from Quincy with $40,000 in student loans. She is paying 30 to 40 percent of her monthly income to service the debt.
“If it wasn’t for that,” she said, “I would definitely be shopping more. But I really have to watch how I spend, and save money.”
Still, many consumers said they are finally ready to stretch their shopping muscles again. For Charlie Johnston, 30, the past few years have been tough. He struggled to find a job and a regular paycheck, and kept a tight rein on his spending.
Now, Johnson, of Braintree, works full time as a barber in Weymouth. He’s still watching his spending but said he is ready to shop again this holiday season.
“I really slacked back in the day when it came to buying Christmas presents because I didn’t have a stable job,” he said. “This year, if anything, I think I might go over the top.”