Is frugal the new black?

Image: Suzanne Chalaire
Suzanne Chalaire shows her daughter, Natalie Bocco, 7, a dress from the rack at Goodwill Boutique. Some consumers are embracing frugal habits like thrift store shopping as the economy sours.Taylor Jones / The Palm Beach Post via Zuma Press

To get a sense of the American economy, consider what’s in for summer: house parties instead of bar hopping, thrift stores instead of mall shopping, gardening instead of gourmet restaurants.

Americans have spent the past year or so complaining about the rising price of everything from bread to gas, and bemoaning the ways in which it has changed their lifestyle.

Now, as the reality of a down economy begins to sink in, experts say consumers are starting to embrace the simple life: staying close to home, cooking more, planting a garden and even delighting in bargain hunting. Some retailers, trying to make the best of the situation, have begun looking for ways to latch onto the trend as well.

“Americans as a whole are pretty … adaptable, so when it gets tough, we make it cool to be frugal,” said Anna D’Agrosa, director of consumer insight with Zandl Group, a trend forecasting group.

D’Agrosa has seen a surge of interest in gardening, and especially growing food, as well as shopping at local markets and cooking at home. She’s also seeing more people having fun taking thrift store finds and sprucing them up for a more modern look.

Dinner parties, board games and rental movies are becoming more popular ways to socialize and save a buck, she said, while those who do go out are increasingly opting for dive bars or underground clubs that are cheaper than their higher-end counterparts.

“I think they’re definitely finding ways to make it fun,” D’Agrosa said.

Faced with a tight job market and less discretionary money from their parents, teenagers are often hit early and hard in a down economy. But Gary Rudman, president of GTR Consulting, which tracks the habits of teens and young adults, said this generation of teens is also quick to adapt to new dynamics.

“They’re the first to react, and they figure out how to make it work,” he said. 

That doesn’t mean they are willing to give up their favorite brands or gadgets, he said — they’re just figuring out cheaper ways to get those items.

Some are looking for bargains on Web sites like eBay and Craigslist, he said, or opting for lower-end or slightly older versions of gadgets such as phones or iPods. Others are increasingly willing to go to discounters to find coveted brands.

“These guys are looking for any way possible to stretch that dollar,” Rudman said. “They’re very adaptive.”

The obvious challenge for retailers is to get consumers who have decided to go frugal to spend money at their stores anyway.

Retailers already known for bargains, such as Wal-Mart, were among the first to start promoting ways that shoppers can enjoy a pared-down lifestyle. Over the past couple months, the discounter has played up deals on backyard items that can spruce up a “staycation” —staying at home during time off work rather than traveling. In May, it even launched a campaign focused exclusively on making one summertime indulgence — ice cream — more affordable.

Many other retailers have launched similar campaigns. And as high prices and the ailing economy begin pinching even consumers in higher income brackets, brands that aren’t usually associated with bargains are getting into the game as well.

Whole Foods, the upscale grocer often referred to jokingly as “Whole Paycheck,” recently dispatched a group of “value gurus” to offer store tours for customers looking for bargains. Tips include buying house brand items and eating food that is local and in season.

D’Agrosa said some companies could benefit from a push toward frugality.

For example, people who choose to stay at home rather than go bar-hopping tend to buy  higher-end liquor because it’s still cheaper than what they would pay at a bar, D'Agrosa said. Online retailers also stand to benefit because they allow customers to save on gas, and lower-priced alternatives such as grocer Trader Joe’s and clothing store H&M also stand to profit.

Those who are more practiced at living on less note that, sometimes, the “treasure hunt” of bargain shopping can be fun in and of itself.

While George Reese, 51, admits that it might be nice to get a new car or fill up the tank without a second thought, the lifelong frugal shopper also takes pride in the unexpected deals he finds during his frequent trips to discount stores. The other day, the Ventura County, Calif., resident was pleasantly surprised to come across half-gallons of name brand ice cream for just 99 cents.

“Being frugal is not anything to be ashamed of. It’s just the way of life,” he said. “It’s something you have to do to, if not to beat the system, then to keep up with it.”