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The End of Retail Therapy?

In this deteriorating economy, wealthy people who used to spend their money freely on exotic vacations and $8,000 Birkin bags supposedly are cutting down their conspicuous consumption and trying to be more environmentally sensitive at the same time, The Wall Street Journal says today.

If that’s true, it would mark a big change from the practice of retail therapy, the popular solution all through the last decade of hitting the mall to make your troubles go away. From The Journal:

The shift began even before the credit markets broke down and the stock market plunged. Many Americans had already begun to question their “freewheeling consumption” and move toward “a culture of responsibility,” says J. Walker Smith, president of global trends researcher Yankelovich, a unit of the Futures Company. For many, he says, environmental concerns were an important factor in this shift.

Environmental consciousness has often been associated with added expenses such as solar panels and organic food. But Wendy Liebmann, chief executive of consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail, has noticed that the economic downturn is accelerating mainstream acceptance of the thriftier behaviors of the green movement, like cutting out bottled water and growing vegetables.

“People are saying, ‘We are going to save money, and we are going to save the environment,’ ” she says.

The story goes on to cite a 31-year-old book editor in Carmel, Ind., who cut out weekly trips to Target and daily cups of Starbucks to can apple butter and cherries for Christmas gifts.

Well, good for her, and all the others like her, if they actually are out there somewhere. Every now and then stories like this pop up, about the rich cutting back and living more simply. They usually are followed a few months later by all the unnecessary luxury items rich people are buying.

We’ll see if this cutting back and going green thing is a real trend. Clearly consumer confidence and spending are declining. But I’d guess it’s less a matter of turning away from consumerism than this unmistakable, solidly evidenced trend — credit card companies are cutting back on access to credit. The Federal Reserve’s October survey of bank loan officers found they are reducing credit lines for consumers, especially those with spotty credit records.

That’s a real trend. And if you see luxury items selling less well, and lots of stories about people trying to live more simply, assume that less access to plastic probably has a lot more to do with it than suddenly enlightened attitudes.

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