LOS ANGELES -- "The consumer has adapted very well to not saving money," said one analyst of the latest consumer spending report. In other words, as Kermit the Frog once said of being green, it's hell to be rich. But we seem to be getting along okay, thanks.
Spending soared again in July, and savings accounts covered the ride.
Personal savings fell almost a full percentage point for the month as summer splurgers bought everything they could get their hands on -- durables (cars, air conditioners and other long-living goods), nondurables and services. Purchases of services rose $14.5 billion in July to an annual rate of $1.23 trillion.
No wonder the piggy bank is empty.
Those who have been saying that the typical consumer is pooped have been proven wrong, so wrong that many of them will not be surprised to learn about speed buying.
Speed buying is a major new trend. We are buying more, and we want to do it faster.
Designers of shopping malls are learning this the hard way -- many are starting to lose money on the concept of linger-all-day-and-shop-when-you-may. The relatively recent idea of huge mall resorts (with skating rinks and coffee bars, and fern gardens with benches and entertainment) is already giving way to the newer small malls or, as the architects of a model new mall in Princeton call them, "market fairs."
Made to attract the double-income young professionals, the smaller shopping areas allow for faster and faster spending. There are no hard-to-plow-through department stores, only well-edited merchandise in classier environments. There are child-care centers for dropping the kids off while Mom runs in to Ralph Lauren, Benetton and Ann Taylor.
She has "plenty of money but no time," the designer of a small mall in Santa Barbara said. "She wants neatly presented choices in the stores and lots of service opportunities nearby." Namely, a place to develop photos and fix shoes in between the race to the stationer's shop and the pickup of the carry-out dinner at the gourmet market.
Incredibly to me and to those of you who thought the nation's post-recession spending eruption had slowed, these smaller centers are estimated to pull in $1,500 per square foot, compared with $100 or $135 in an ordinary department store.
This, as a sign of economic dynamism, would be terrific news were we not now a debt-ridden people. Consumer debt has risen 40 percent in the past three years while disposable income is up only 22 percent. Federal debt is now so high it eats up most of our net national savings in finance costs -- nearly two-thirds.
How long can this go on before we realize we can indeed be too rich and too thin?
The optimist's answer, of course, is that a large portion of consumer spending continues to pour into services, and that service needs will drive our economy in the future. The "small mall" folks are betting on this by spending on elegant service touches and hiking product prices to cover their costs.
One of the many lessons in the failure of the latest TV home shopping experiment -- MCA's "The Home Shopping Game," which bit the dust shortly after Lorimar's similar effort -- is that people these days want good goods and good service when they shop, not entertainment.
Service ideas are popping out all over. A shop in the new Ballston Common in Northern Virginia offers framing while you wait. Stores offer wrapping and mailing service for all your Christmas gifts or beautiful calligraphy addresses on cards or invitations. Professional shoppers will just do it all for you.
In the area where I live, it is common for people to have services at home, such as a car polisher who pulls into the driveway once a week to spiff up the autos or a florist who brings fresh flowers and installs them in the homeowner's vases before placing them attractively in various rooms. Dry cleaning, laundry and groceries are delivered as in the old days. Vans with dog groomers can be seen pulling into driveways. Gardeners are everywhere. Personal trainers are common (aerobics class in the privacy of your living room), as are parking valets for neighborhood cocktail parties.
I have heard of computer tutors, and only wish I could find one.
I know that in the Yellow Pages of the Los Angeles phone book, there are companies listed that will send underwater electricians to your home. They dive in the pool and change the bulbs in your submerged lighting fixtures.
This is all going on while working folks are presumed to be working harder in order to afford such conveniences. In the race to earn and spend, there is no time to waste.
Except that the spenders are outpacing the earners by a mile, and it's hard to see how anybody can win in the end.