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Thursday focus: Shopping life

Carolyn O’Brien used to glide into Nordstrom, let the fashion moment seize her and buy whatever was in her price range, with little concern for sales or discounts.

These days, she combs the racks at Macy’s or JCPenney, where coupons and discounts mean savings of 40 percent or more.

“I don’t buy anything unless it’s on sale now, and not just a little sale, it has to be at least 20 percent off,” said O’Brien, who works for the California Skin Institute as a patient care coordinator. And, she said, she may keep her thrifty shopping habits even after the economy rebounds.

But will her new way of life outlast the current downturn?

The Great Depression witnessed a generational change in consumer behavior, when learning to live with less became a habit – and one that many clung to even when the good times returned.

Now, some research suggests that even as Americans have downshifted their spending habits because of the current recession, buying only essentials, shopping less – and trading down when they do – they are seriously reassessing their consumerism, not just now but also for the long term.

“To what extent will this behavior persist even if the economy bounces back? That is the big question,” said Frank Badillo, vice president and senior retail economist for Retail Forward, a consulting and analysis firm.

The firm conducted a survey in August and again in February to gauge consumer habits. It found both times that about three-fourths of the 4,000 survey respondents said they have significantly or somewhat changed their shopping behaviors because of the economy.

And once entrenched, this “recession shopping behavior” has the potential to linger even after the economy improves, according to the report.

U.S. consumer behavior changed drastically during the Depression, when 25 to 30 percent of the work force was unemployed. Frugality was the rule of the day, a mindset many continued for the rest of their lives.

But in the decades since, easy money policies led to an explosion of credit, and consumption. Now, with the current crisis, many who have never had to economize are being forced to do so for the first time in their lives. Credit isn’t as readily available anymore, either.

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