After a year of scrimping, Marci Schwartz is starting to treat herself again.
The massage therapist from Northeast Philadelphia has lately enjoyed craft beer at a local brewery. She’s shopped for fabric to satisfy her quilting hobby. And she planned a vacation for September with family at a cabin in Western Pennsylvania.
Schwartz, 53, said she’s still choosy about spending her money after the financial harm of the pandemic. But she has recovered most of her income now that clients have returned in greater numbers. She’s fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and feels comfortable going out.
“I don’t feel like I have to pinch every penny anymore,” she said. “It’s kind of like things are getting back to normal.”
Boosted by vaccines and having more money in their pockets, consumers are reopening their wallets. Consumer spending is above pre-pandemic levels across the Philadelphia region and nation, according to payment card data analyzed by Opportunity Insights, a Harvard-backed research group. Consumer spending makes up two-thirds of U.S. economic output, and the surge in spending is expected to continue for months, if not into next year, experts and economists said.
After a year stuck at home, consumers who can afford it are “revenge spending” — splurging on items and experiences they were deprived of during the pandemic, experts said. More than half of U.S. consumers expect to spend extra by treating themselves, with higher-income millennials intending to spend the most, a recent McKinsey & Co. survey found.
“Consumers are just excited to be out of that more restricted era of the last year-plus,” said Tamara Charm, a senior expert at McKinsey who co-authored the survey. “There’s this psychological want to spend across many, many things.”
The pent-up demand bodes well for businesses in the region as local governments wind down capacity limits that crushed the economy.
There’s already been a noticeable return of economic activity. Restaurant reservations have ramped up in Philadelphia. Shoppers are refreshing their wardrobes at Urban Outfitters, which reported record sales during the first-quarter. The Sixers have sold out capacity-limited tickets. There are more parking tickets too: The Philadelphia Parking Authority has issued a lot more citations this spring than during the same time last year, indicating a return to normal after relaxing enforcement.
These numbers are in many cases still below pre-pandemic levels, but they’re closing the gap. Restaurant reservations in Philly, for example, were down 20% on May 22 compared with the same weekend in 2019, according to OpenTable, an online reservation service. In April, reservations were off anywhere from 40% to more than 60% some days.
The vegan restaurant Charlie was a sinner and Bar Bombon in Philadelphia have seen record sales over the last two months, said owner Nicole Marquis. The full-service eateries have wait lists again and have had to turn away some walk-in customers. At the same time, her restaurants are still capturing online takeout and delivery orders that became more popular during the pandemic.
“I see people walking down the sidewalks on Walnut Street once again, when just a few months ago it was still really kind of desolate, so that’s super exciting,” Marquis said.
Foot traffic is trending up outside restaurants, clothing stores, and travel destinations in the region, according to Earnest Research, a New York-based data firm that tracks cell phone location data. After consumers stocked up on groceries and toilet paper during the early days of the pandemic, spending on essentials is reverting back to pre-pandemic levels, said Charm, of McKinsey. That appears to favor such categories as retail apparel and travel, which are rebounding.
Urban Outfitters Inc., the Philadelphia-based retailer, had a record $927 million in sales for the three months that ended April 30. Its Anthropologies brand saw a rebound in full-price apparel sales, led by dresses and denim, CEO Richard Hayne said during an earnings call last Tuesday.
“The last 15 months she has been locked down and wearing sweats and track pants and lounge and the sorts of things you do when you’re just at home,” Haynes said of his target customer. “I think she is starting to see that she might need to refresh her closet and then she is buying things that are more appropriate for outside wear and for meeting other people and being social.”
Not only are people unleashing their pent-up demand, but they have the cash to do it, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s. He estimated that Americans have $2.3 trillion in “excess savings” as of March — money that would not have piled up without the pandemic. He predicted that a third of that $2.3 trillion would be spent by the end of 2022.
“I think people are out spending with gusto and I think they’ll continue to spend aggressively,” he said. “It feels like the Roaring ’20s to me.”
There are some obstacles to the spending recovery, including whether businesses can find enough supplies and workers to meet the demand, to worries over inflation. To the extent that spending is triggered by savings and stimulus checks, it will naturally wane, said Syon Bhanot, a behavioral economist at Swarthmore College. But first, experts say, the pandemic must be kept under control.
Jim’s South St. expects to recover nearly all of its cheesesteak sales once Philadelphia ends its capacity limits, expected June 2. With fewer people allowed to wait in the lobby, the lines outside Jim’s have stretched half a block down Fourth Street to the post office, discouraging customers, said president Ken Silver.
Cheesesteak sales are about 60% of what they were pre-pandemic. Silver thinks customers will quickly return in greater numbers once he can bring more people into the lobby.
“I think it’ll be like flipping a light switch.”