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THE THRILL IS GONE: CONSUMERS ARE CONSUMING AS IF BY ROTE

Wake up, consumers! This being September, the economy is counting on you to buy, buy, buy.

It's already begun, of course, with the traditional back-to-school surge, to be followed by mail order sales, pre-holiday sales, Columbus Day and Veterans Day sales and finally, the unabashed Christmas season push.Retailers always approach the last four months of the year with a mixture of mystery and dread (How much will be spent? What if everyone stays home?), even if their concerns are probably unjustified. Shoppers will wind up buying lots of stuff this year because there are more jobs out there and because, well, paychecks beget spending. Call it consumption by rote.

Yet lurking beneath those automatic spending responses are changes in the consumer landscape.

We're buying - but with little enthusiasm.

We're paying out more than we're taking in.

We're putting more charges on plastic.

We're increasingly dependent on two and three jobs per household.

We're trying to save but not nearly as much as we'd like to.

And then there's the confidence thing: For an economy that's in its fourth year of expansion - often considered the business cycle's "sweet spot" - we are an awfully glum bunch.

Just how glum was made clear by the August consumer confidence numbers from the Conference Board. For the first time in four years, the survey found folks to be less confident about their futures than in their present situation. Only 13 percent, for example, expect there to be more jobs in six months than there are now, the lowest reading since last February and far from the 21 percent in December 1992.

Just 26.1 percent said they planned to buy a major appliance over the next six months. It hasn't been that low in a year.

Numbers alone never tell the complete story - especially those from a single month - and there are any number of short-term explanations for the sour mood, ranging from higher interest rates to Washington ineptitude. But the Conference Board's findings reflect something else - a New Age pragmatism, where consumers are guided less by the way things were and more by the way they are.

Consumption used to be an expression of confidence in something, whether it was one's career, company, family or even nation. It became the quaintly held, middle-class belief that advancing up the corporate ladder, buying a house in the suburbs and keeping up with the consumptive Joneses encompassed a God-given right.

Looking back on the '50s and '60s, economist Paul Krugman says "the numbers alone fail to convey the astonishing sense of affluence and economic optimism that pervaded the country. People worried about many things - social upheaval, nuclear war, the environment - but they took for granted that the economy would continue to deliver an ever higher material standard of living."

My father was among the first to climb on this materialistic wave. He would routinely buy a new family car every two years, not because the family really needed one, but because his 1960 income could afford a snazzier model than his 1958 income. It was the height of ostentation, but it also captured the times.

In today's world of lowering expectations, consumption is a lot less fun. Cars often are held onto for six or eight years and when it's time to buy, function takes priority over snazzy. Even consumers who could afford a $40,000 Cadillac are instead choosing Ford Explorers and Jeep Cherokees (which explains why the luxury car market is in such trouble).

Middle class consumers also have grown accustomed to shopping at places like Price Club and Clothestime, as it becomes apparent that generics are just as good as name brands, that buying 10 rolls of paper towels is cheaper than buying a single roll, and that most clothing eventually winds up on sale.

And they're willing to put everyday, non-discretionary items on their Visas or MasterCards - things like food and gasoline - even if it means paying out a few extra bucks in interest. When the government reports income increasing just 2.8 percent from a year ago while spending jumps 3.4 percent, something has got to give.

A consumer like Anita Silders can feel the squeeze. I was chatting with her the other day at a West Los Angeles Robinsons-May store, as she stocked up on back-to-school items for her daughter and reeled off the toys and clothes that will be bought between now and the end of the year - but only by charging most of it on her bank card.

And will she be able to pay off those bills on time? Silders laughed. "Not unless I win the lottery," she said as the register spit out her receipt. It was a sale all right - but for a wary, cash-strapped consumer, hardly the cause to celebrate.