Consumer Spending Statistics and Current Trends

Two women shopping in the produce section of a grocery store

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Consumer spending, also known as personal consumption expenditures (PCE), refers to the value of the goods and services bought for or by residents of the United States. The Bureau of Economic Analysis reports consumer spending at an annualized rate in order to compare it to gross domestic product (GDP).

Consumer spending statistics help provide a picture of the financial health of the economy at large, so businesses that monitor them can better predict consumer behavior.

The economy contracted in the first quarter of 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will probably be worse in the second quarter, meaning a recession is likely.

Current Consumer Spending

PCE was at $14.583 trillion as of the first quarter of 2020, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). That's down 6.8% from the fourth quarter of 2019. Spending fell as governments required nonessential businesses to close to slow the spread of the pandemic. Millions of people were furloughed.

Spending on durable goods, like automobiles, fell 13.8%. Spending on services, like hair salons, fell 9.8%. Spending on non-durable goods, like groceries, rose 8.0%.

Consumer Spending History

Strong consumer spending is the main reason the GDP growth rate has been within a healthy range of 2% to 3% since the Great Recession.

The latest available Bureau of Labor Statistics data, from 2018, reported that the average American spent $61,224 for the year.

Retail Sales Are Recovering

U.S. retail sales in the quarter were estimated to have grown by 3.8% over the same quarter last year, according to Census Bureau data. The annualized rate is above the 3% annual retail sales growth rate viewed as desirable. Online sales for Black Friday in 2019 grew by 19.6% over the previous year, according to Adobe data. Brick-and-mortar store sales increased only 1.6% from 2018, says RetailNext.

Consumer spending continues to shift toward online shopping versus shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. This will increase dramatically as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Why Consumer Spending Matters

Since PCE is reported monthly, it gives an early indication of that quarter's real GDP, which is GDP that factors in inflation or deflation. Since consumer spending is such a large component of GDP, it is a leading economic indicator. If spending is flat, economic growth may also be anemic, which can increase recession fears.

Beyond forecasting the economy, consumer spending statistics also help retailers evolve in a way that appeals to consumers so that they can remain in business. These companies have had to cope with flat consumer incomes for decades.

How Retailers Have Responded to Changing Consumer Expectations

Retailers now have to contend with shoppers who expect high value combined with low prices. As a result, Amazon and other online stores have stolen business from brick-and-mortar stores. Companies that depend exclusively on a low-cost or a high-value competitive advantage have fallen behind. Instead, the retailers today must provide both.

Those companies that don't strike the right balance between value and price could lose their customers permanently. 

Factors That Impact Consumer Spending

For business owners looking for ways to appeal to consumers, four trends should factor into their planning.

Consumer Debt

Spending took a long time to bounce back from the recession. First and foremost, millions of people went back to school to find new careers. That cut back on shopping. But don't blame credit card debt alone, which surpassed pre-recession levels in 2017. Home and student loan debt are also major contributors to overall consumer debt. Increases in consumer debt can curb future spending.

Stagnant Wages

Average income levels have not kept pace with growth in either the stock market or GDP. That's partly because jobs have been outsourced to cheaper labor in China, India, and low-wage manufacturing in Asia. Despite changes to NAFTA and other free trade agreements, some manufacturers may still choose to cut jobs locally and hire abroad. Employees who lose jobs may have cut back on spending and increased saving to make up for income shortfalls.

Consumer Confidence

Many analysts look to the Consumer Confidence Index, a measure of how Americans feel about the economy, to predict how likely it is consumers will spend. That's because people are more likely to shop when they feel confident about their ability to get a more lucrative job. Confidence numbers plummeted twice after 2007, but they have mostly ticked higher over the past decade.

The Shift to Thrift

During the recession, shoppers searched for the cheapest prices possible, ensuring the success of Walmart and dollar stores. As the economy started to improve, discount stores didn't revert to full-price stores. Instead, a shift occurred. A 2010 Alix Partners Retail Survey found that consumers were buying "good enough" products and were pleasantly surprised that they were "good enough." Americans were not as focused on retaining their standard of living as they were before the financial crisis. This paradigm shift is likely here to stay, so businesses that cater to this new breed of customers are better poised to stay afloat.

Article Sources

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  5. U.S. Census Bureau. "Quarterly Retail E-Commerce Sales, 3rd Quarter 2019," Pages 1-2. Accessed April 2, 2020.

  6. Adobe Blog. "Adobe Data Shows Record Cyber Monday With $9.2 Billion in Online Sales." Accessed Feb. 6, 2020.

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  8. National Retail Federation. "NRF Says ‘State of the Economy Is Sound’ and Forecasts Retail Sales Will Grow Between 3.8 and 4.4 Percent." Accessed Feb. 6, 2020.


  9. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "The Consumer Credit Card Market," Page 26. Accessed Feb. 6, 2020.

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  11. Alix Partners. "Retailers that Understand Today’s ‘Shift to Thrift’ Are Winning With Both Shoppers and Investors, According to New AlixPartners Survey." Accessed Feb. 6, 2020.