Georgia’s consumers stayed home … so did their money

03/09/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Oscar Bail, project manager for 360 Painting of North Georgia, relocates a ladder as he and his crew use tape and painter’s plastic to prepare a house for a paint job at a residence in Atlanta’s Virginia Highlands community, Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
03/09/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Oscar Bail, project manager for 360 Painting of North Georgia, relocates a ladder as he and his crew use tape and painter’s plastic to prepare a house for a paint job at a residence in Atlanta’s Virginia Highlands community, Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Pandemic spending mainly goes to home improvement, home fitness, groceries

It’s a good time to be in the house-painting business.

Many white-collar professionals have been working from home for a year. They still have income, but they’re not spending much on travel or entertainment. So they choose to improve what they see all day.

“People are saying, ‘I’m never leaving my home office. It should look better,’” said Bruce Brady, owner of 360 Painting of North Atlanta. “Or, they say, ‘If I’m going to be in my house all the time, I want my kitchen to look a lot nicer.’”

The company is doing more than twice the business it did in 2019.

ExploreCOVID one year later: How the pandemic has altered our daily lives

The pandemic both battered and reshaped the nation’s $20 trillion economy. Fear of contagion emptied public places, malls and offices and closed schools. Millions were out of work. But, unlike the Great Recession a dozen years earlier, the crisis did not crush spending.

Even low-income households have been spending more, largely because federal relief was at record levels. Consumer spending in Georgia was up 1.2% compared to a year ago, according to researchers at Harvard University.

ABOUT OUR PANDEMIC ANNIVERSARY SERIES

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Since then, more than half a million Americans, including more than 15,000 in Georgia alone, have died from COVID-19. Over the past year, just about every aspect of daily life also has changed, from the tragic to the mundane. Between now and March 21, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is publishing several stories chronicling the impact on Atlantans and Georgians — what we’ve lost, how we’ve changed, and what we’ve gained.

Coming Tuesday: How we groom

Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic changed what we buy and where we spend. As vaccinations become more available and society begins to reopen, the question is, will those new spending patterns stick?

Fear of the spread of the coronavirus cut trips to malls, then the governor shut them down temporarily in the spring of 2020. That sped up Americans' spending online. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Fear of the spread of the coronavirus cut trips to malls, then the governor shut them down temporarily in the spring of 2020. That sped up Americans' spending online. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

With so many staying home, Georgians spent 14.3% more on groceries and 13.9% less on restaurants and hotels. Spending on transportation dropped 41.2%, as did spending on entertainment and recreation — down 44.2%.

We spent 19.4% more on retail, but many purchases were made online, not in a store.

Those working from dining rooms and noticing how much things needed buffing up often called the pros for renovations, but even more people were ambitious enough to go the do-it-yourself route, according to Home Depot. Sales were up robustly for pros, but even more so for the DIY crowd, according to the Vinings-based home improvement giant.

National sales of home textiles were up 19%, and sales of other home improvement materials rose 22% according to the NPD Group, which collects data from millions of consumers and businesses.

When the pandemic struck, the news was filled with stories of panic-buying of toilet paper and basic foodstuffs. As people settled in, the shortages ebbed, but food sales have stayed strong, according to TOP Data, a network of marketing firms that analyzed spending at 55 grocery store chains across the United States.

The biggest spending increase last year was on spirits, a 33% jump from 2019.

Georgians spent more on wine and liquor after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, though beer sales fell by a small amount.
Georgians spent more on wine and liquor after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, though beer sales fell by a small amount.

Wine sales were up 12%. Spending on meat jumped 16%, and meat alternatives surged 34%. Chocolate sales were up 12%, bakery desserts up 33%, chips and bagged popcorn up 10%.

If we were getting meals from a restaurant, odds are, it was take-out or by delivery.

Though average restaurant spending was down as a whole, take-out grew 13.5% for the year, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Papa John’s reported its third consecutive quarter of double-digit sales growth. Domino’s said its U.S. sales for the year were up 17.6%.

“I used to eat out and buy drinks with friends and on dates, and now I spend more on groceries and Uber eats,” said Toni Sulmers of Atlanta. “That’s something I never used before.”

The new stay-at-home habit means no need to dress for the office or after-work socializing. That led to a 34% plunge in purchases of make-up, an 11% drop in skincare products and an 8% fall in fragrance sales, according to Larissa Jensen, beauty industry advisor at the NPD Group.

“I have spent a lot less money on clothes and have cut out fast-fashion completely,” said Sulmers. “No more perusing the aisles of TJ Maxx.”

And, while companies were ordering far fewer supplies than a year ago, employees at home picked up the slack. Although overall office supply sales dropped 0.3%, online sales of office supplies spiked 35%.

It wasn’t just offices that we have been avoiding.

Concern about in-person transactions has meant less spending at barber shops, as well as nail and hair salons.

“That used to be a bastion of stability,” said Leslie Kuban, a franchise consultant. “It was recession-proof. It was Amazon-proof, and hair always grows. But then the pandemic comes along, and suddenly people just go without it.”

The same goes for gyms and fitness studios, which faced massive cancellations of memberships. American spending on recreation fell 30%, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Still, even those afraid of crowds, found a way to keep in shape. The result is a flood of orders for in-home exercise equipment. Schwinn saw a surge in orders for exercise bikes last spring. In January, it said it was still months behind on deliveries.

360 Painting of North Georgia painter Rafael Bail uses painters plastic and painters tape to prepare a house for painting in Atlanta’s Virginia Highlands community, Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
360 Painting of North Georgia painter Rafael Bail uses painters plastic and painters tape to prepare a house for painting in Atlanta’s Virginia Highlands community, Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Economists have been debating how much of the change in spending habits will continue as vaccines are distributed and, hopefully, life returns to a semblance of normal. Will gyms, theaters and ballparks fill up again? Or have Americans made choices that will redirect their spending permanently? Those questions remain to be answered.

Some alterations may be for good, said Casey Bean of Lawrenceville.

As the pandemic gripped the country, she and her fiancé were determined to stay safe. They stopped going to the movies, did their shopping online, had groceries and other purchases delivered and canceled gym memberships.

“I only spent $10 a month on the gym, and my fiancé had the fancier $25-a-month deal,” she said. “Then we spent a hefty amount on a NordicTrack elliptical, so we weren’t really saving money initially.”

But they had shifted course.

“We figured we wouldn’t be going to the gym anytime soon, and this way we could work out safely at home and keep the equipment forever,” she said. “My fiancé and I probably went to the movies once a month, but it’s been a year now since the shutdown, so it seems like forever ago.”