More shoppers head to discount stores

That shift, suggests Marcy Syms, CEO of off-price retailer Syms, is "something we'll see more of, and it's consistent with past harbingers of recession. It takes a lot for people to change buying patterns. It usually has to be something they feel significantly in their home budgets."

Marcy Syms notes that the 1990-91 recession actually helped lift sales at Syms.

Phil Rist, a vice president at consumer insights firm BIGresearch, notes: "Consumers are shopping around more. … You're definitely seeing more activity at the discounters than you do in economic boom times."

These days, Kristy Tucker of Lexington, Ky., is shifting toward two regional off-price retailers in her area, Goody's and Gordmans.

"My husband is quite happy that I'm no longer shopping at Macy's, Express and Old Navy," Tucker says. "Nowadays, Gordmans and Goody's are our first stop, not the other places. I still get my jeans from Old Navy, but that's it."

Retail analyst Bill Dreher of Deutsche Bank Securities notes that Wal-Mart emerged from the 2001 recession in stronger shape than it entered it.

The trend could carry long-term implications for all the retailers. People who try — and like — stores in shaky economic times are more likely to stick with them after the economy rebounds.

Wal-Mart is "in the right place at the right time," says Dreher, who follows the discounter. It "provides a solution to consumers during those rough economic times when they're driven to the stores because of economic need." Once the economy improves, those shoppers "tend to stay with Wal-Mart for the more discretionary categories as they come out of recession."

To avoid spending too much, Michael West says, his family's been consolidating shopping trips to save gas and buying more of their food, clothes and other necessities at Wal-Mart.

"We used to hate going to Wal-Mart because of the huge lines at checkout, but they've fixed that in the last year," says West, of Montgomery, Ala.

About 85% of people with household incomes of more than $100,000 reported in WSL Strategic Retail's new How America Shops survey that they were already shopping at Wal-Mart at least once in the prior three months. WSL CEO Wendy Liebmann says that means the discounter is well-positioned to prosper in a sluggish economy.

"The door is already open to (higher-income customers); now they just may be spending more than they did before," says Liebmann, whose company's survey results will be issued this month. "These people are thinking, 'Why shouldn't I save the 20 cents on toilet paper, because it all adds up.' "

With the price of apparel rising along with gas, electricity and food prices, Erin Chandler of Findlay, Ohio, has scaled back her clothes shopping and avoided Macy's, Nordstrom and such specialty retailers as J. Crew jcg and Banana Republic. Before the economic slowdown, she says, she never shopped at Wal-Mart for anything except toiletries or groceries. She also wasn't a T.J. Maxx shopper, "simply because I didn't feel that I had to be. … To be honest, T.J. Maxx seemed a little like an unnecessary downgrade."

But recently, she concedes, she's bought a few items of clothing at Wal-Mart and adds, "I do not have a problem with doing so."

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