With the stock market hitting record highs all year, plus a rising housing market and low unemployment, American shoppers gave the retail sector an early Christmas present this year — but some trend-watchers warned that this optimism could be contributing to financial instability.
According to payments technology firm First Data, which tracks and analyzes card-based payments at brick-and-mortar and online retailers, this year consumers began buying more, and shopping earlier. In the nine days leading up to Black Friday, spending grew by nearly 6 percent, year over year. On Thanksgiving and Black Friday, spending grew by roughly 12 percent.
It was a breakout year for online shopping — Adobe Systems said shoppers rang up $5 billion in online sales on Black Friday alone, and a record $6.6 billion was spent on Cyber Monday. Shoppers also hit stores over the long holiday weekend. Location-based analytics firm ShopperTrak found that store traffic fell only slightly on Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday this year.
"Robust Black Friday sales and high consumer confidence levels suggest that Americans have finally recovered, psychologically as well as economically, from the Great Recession," said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.
The University of Michigan's Surveys of Consumers found that November sentiments of current and future expectations of economic conditions, although down slightly from last month, were all higher than a year earlier.
"Consumers have voiced greater certainty about their expectations for income, employment, and inflation," Surveys chief economist Richard Curtin wrote in his analysis, calling current conditions, "the best runup to the holiday shopping season in a decade."
Does the average family benefit from stock market highs?
While stock market records make headlines, experts point out that they don't translate to meaningful wealth gains for many families.
"You have to distinguish between reality and perception. The reality is a relatively small percentage of households owns most equities," Brobeck said. "A little over half of households own stock, but the top 1 percent of households own nearly two-fifths of all stock shares," he said.
"I think that a lot of the consumer confidence is simply driven by the messages the media wants to report," said Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing. "In terms of the average American household, most of them have not seen significant gains since the recession," she said. "How people feel and the actual reality are often two different things."
If this confidence is unfounded, financial experts worry that holiday shoppers are doubling down by putting so much of their spending on credit.
"How sustainable is this level of consumer spending?" said Bankrate.com senior economic analyst, Mark Hamrick. "I think that's where we have the greatest concern."
Personal finances don't match the confidence
Federal Reserve data shows that the savings rate has fallen by roughly half in the past two years, and currently stands at just 3 percent. Meanwhile, personal finance site WalletHub.com predicts that by the end of the year, America will have accrued $1 trillion in credit card debt, an all-time high.
"We're hitting some records we don't really want to be be hitting," said Jill Gonzalez, WalletHub analyst. "These debt levels are pretty much where they were back at the of 2007."
While Gonzalez said today's economy is much more stable than it was a decade ago, she suggested that borrowers are failing to take the long view, and are taking for granted that positive economic trends will not only continue, but improve.
"We still have a lot of people waiting on their wages to increase, and yet spending still seems to be pretty high," she said.
"Clearly, expectations are high that there will be continued improvement," Hamrick said. "That puts us at risk for disappointment."
For working Americans, Brobeck said betting that a rising stock market will lead to wage growth — growth that so far has been elusive — is a gamble.
"The fact that the stock market is rising does tend to increase the confidence of consumers who don't own stocks. That's because they assume that if stock prices are increasing, the economy is doing well their jobs are more secure they're more likely to get a pay raise," he said.
The reality, however, is more complicated. "Rising stock prices do not necessarily benefit wage earners."