As retailers continue to see only modest sales growth even as gas prices have fallen, the conventional wisdom has been this: Consumers are still cautious in the wake of a bruising recession, and they’re just not ready to open their wallets yet.

But what if shoppers’ battlescars from the recession aren’t quite as bad as they’ve been made out to be?

That’s the case that MasterCard executive Sarah Quinlan made in a presentation at the Global Retailing Conference in Tucson on Thursday. Quinlan and her analytics team study billions of purchases made on MasterCard’s payment network – as well as with checks and cash — to identify consumer spending patterns. And they’ve come to a different conclusion: Shoppers aren’t really that skittish; they’re just spending their money differently than they did before the recession.

For example, take the steady growth MasterCard is seeing in restaurant spending:

Quinlan said this reflects that time-starved consumers are choosing to spend their cash on experiences, not stuff.

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“We have no time. People pick up the kids from soccer practice, and they go out to dinner, because they want the experience of being with their family,” Quinlan said.

Spending on air travel is healthy, too, even as ticket prices haven’t declined, another sign that consumers are willing to pay for experiences.

It’s not just dinners out and vacation: MasterCard’s data shows consumers are shelling out again on big purchases such as a new car or fine jewelry. In fact, in the jewelry category, MasterCard has seen 25 straight months of sales growth and has recorded an eye-popping average purchase price of $2,400.

Those investment purchases, Quinlan said, offer a key lesson for retailers.

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“If she’s buying a $34,000 car, she has no problem coming in and buying a $200 sweater,” Quinlan said.

In other words, if you’re a retailer that’s not moving a lot of sweaters, it’s not because your consumer doesn’t have the budget for it. It’s because you haven’t done a good job of convincing her to buy it.

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Even though Quinlan contends that consumers aren’t running scared, her analysis has found that consumers are indeed more deliberate about their purchases than they were before the recession. People have fewer credit cards in their wallets, down from an average of eight cards to four. They are also less likely to carry a balance now than they were before the downturn. And perhaps most crucially, they’re not necessarily looking for items that are dirt cheap, but they are looking for a good value.

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Quinlan summed it up this way: “I’m not going to buy a $300 pair of jeans for my teenager who outgrows them in two months. That’s so 2007.”

MasterCard’s data add up to a colossal challenge for retailers selling items such as apparel, electronics and home goods. People are feeling comfortable spending again, but they seem most likely to want to shell out for memorable experiences or for sensible, big-ticket items that they know will last a long time. For retailers who don’t fit in those categories, it’s going to be an uphill climb to get convince consumers to buy.

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