Suzann Ordile spent her time and money on restaurants and entertainment before the coronavirus disrupted life in the Philadelphia region and across the world. In a typical week, the Newtown lawyer ordered takeout twice, saw a couple shows with her wife, and dined near a theater in Princeton. She also squeezed in a trip or two to small shops or big box stores.
But Ordile slashed all that spending well before Gov. Tom Wolf shut down nonessential businesses in Pennsylvania. She hasn’t been inside a store since March 15. She stopped all takeout orders, canceled medical checkups, and put travel plans on hold.
And she won’t rush back to restaurants, retailers, or theaters when they reopen.
“Just risk-averse and really want to know safety protocols are truly safe and are being followed first,” said Ordile, 49, in describing her approach.
It was spending by consumers like Ordile that drove the U.S. economy before the pandemic crippled it. The collapse was highlighted again Friday, when federal data showed that retail sales fell by a record 16.4% from March to April. That consumer spending, which used to make up more than two-thirds of economic output, doesn’t appear to start or stop based on government shutdown orders, according to an analysis of nationwide consumer spending data.
So even as politicians like President Donald Trump, public health experts, and economists engage in a fraught debate over reopening the economy, new evidence suggests consumers will have the final say on when the economy limps back to life.
In Pennsylvania, consumer spending started to slow March 16 and was already down 20% by the time nonessential businesses were forced to close on March 23, according to card purchasing data published by Opportunity Insights, a Harvard-based research group. New Jerseyeans had cut spending by almost 12% before their state’s stay-at-home order on March 21.
And consumer spending has yet to pick up in states that have lifted restrictions. Despite selected businesses reopening in late April, it has remained flat.
“There’s no sharp change when governments say, ‘Now it’s safe to go out and reopen businesses,’” said Michael Stepner, a University of Toronto economist and a lead investigator for the project at Opportunity Insights. “So that’s a real concern, and suggests that the government can’t just announce everything is safe and have everyone go out and reopen their wallets."
For example, Georgia allowed gyms, hair salons, tattoo parlors, and bowling alleys to reopen April 24. Consumer spending was down 22% compared with January before those restrictions were lifted, and was still down 21% a week later. In South Carolina, consumer spending was down 14% when selected stores reopened April 21, and was still down 12% as of April 30.
The group’s findings are based on anonymized consumer spending data from Affinity Solutions, a firm that collects purchasing information from card-based transactions. Affinity data covers $400 billion in annual spending on credit and debit cards, or between 5% and 10% of total national spending in those categories.
As of April 30, consumer spending was down 20.5% nationwide from early January, an improvement from the decline of 33% on March 30.
Spending in Pennsylvania and New Jersey fell as much as 38% before rebounding. With the exception of spending on groceries, which is up 20%, purchasing plummeted for apparel, eateries, travel, health care, entertainment, and transportation. Government actions did not appear to have significantly altered consumer behavior, with one exception — the coronavirus “stimulus checks.” Spending did jump after the federal payments of up to $1,200 hit bank accounts, the data shows.
The virus has infected at least 1.5 million Americans and killed more than 87,000. Still, state governments are under rising pressure to lift the lockdowns as 36.5 million Americans have filed unemployment claims in the eight weeks since nonessential businesses were forced to close. That includes almost 1.8 million Pennsylvanians, or 27% of the state’s workforce, and more than 1 million New Jersey workers, or 23% of the workforce.
Opening businesses will generate a little more economic activity, but it’s unlikely to approach levels from before the crisis, as consumers are still concerned about the virus, said Syon Bhanot, a behavioral economist at Swarthmore College. He co-authored a recent study, based on an April survey of 1,912 Pennsylvanians, which found 61% supported staying home as long as necessary even if the economy suffered. That suggests reopening stores alone won’t alleviate economic woes.
“It’s kind of this chicken or the egg thing, and it comes down to the health side of it," he said. “People have to feel safe when they go out to be going on with their normal lives as consumers. So if people don’t feel that way, they’re not going to flock to stores, who aren’t then going to hire people.”
There was evidence of how politically polarizing the reopening debate is becoming in the online survey conducted by Civiqs. While almost no Democrats (4%) prioritized reopening the economy, almost half of Republicans (49%) did. Bhanot expects that consumers in more liberal urban areas could be slower to shop inside stores than their conservative rural counterparts.
Consumers interviewed by The Inquirer were mostly hesitant to return to restaurants and stores soon. But there were exceptions.
Daniel Kovatich, a 43-year-old insurance and risk adviser from Elkins Park, said he used to work in restaurants and wants to support those who have lost pay right away.
“I know what it feels like to be counting down to rent day and scratching pennies," he said. “So you know, I worry about those folks and what is the longer-term impact on their ability to hit whatever their goals are.”
Marci Schwartz, a 52-year-old massage therapist from Northeast Philadelphia, has been out of work since March. She quickly shifted her spending to grocery deliveries and has found the online orders convenient. She’s plans to keep buying online even when physical stores reopen.
“As much as I want to go out and have a beer and a burger somewhere," she said, “I don’t want to be with people either.”