Consumers, economists widely agree, kept on buying things right through the 2001 recession, and since then have led the economic expansion. One way to track the role of consumer spending in the local economy is to look at hiring by the region's retail sector.

Last year, retailers were one of the biggest drivers of Washington area job creation, adding positions at a 3.3 percent pace for the full year, compared with 2.7 percent for all industries.

So far this year retailers are adding jobs at roughly the same pace -- 3.2 percent for the 12 months ended in June. What's changed is other sectors are catching up. With local payrolls overall up 3 percent in that span, retailers are no longer alone in their urge to hire.

The impact isn't uniform across different parts of the retail landscape, however. Department stores are doing the best of the major retail sectors, adding jobs at a 10.9 percent pace for the year ended in June. (That doesn't necessarily mean that traditional department stores have stopped consolidating; the category also includes discounters such as Wal-Mart and Target.) Also gaining are sellers of building materials (with 1,200 more jobs, a 7.1 percent increase), which makes sense given the boom in construction and home improvement.

On the negative side of the ledger, food and beverage stores have cut 1,100 jobs, a 3 percent drop. It could reflect grocers becoming more efficient, or perhaps area consumers are eating more meals out.

-- Neil Irwin