Americans Spend Again (But on What?)

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BOSTON (TheStreet) — Americans have been buying houses and cars, thanks to government support.

But they've needed no aid when spending money on clothes, vacations, home improvements, computers and on dates. Consumer confidence is the highest it's been since September 2008, and BIGresearch found that many Americans plan to spend more this year following a devastating recession.

"Consumers are slowly returning to discretionary purchases," says Scott Krugman, spokesman for the National Retail Federation. "They're by no means 'back' and are only dipping a toe in the water right now."

There are a few areas, though, where consumers are full-on wading. Here are the five biggest areas where consumers are upgrading without any kind of aid:

APPAREL

Apparently, coming out of a recession means no longer wearing an outfit purchased around the same time Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl" first charted. According to BIGresearch, 13% of those polled thought it was time to spend more on apparel for themselves.

While that's great news for Urban Outfitters, which saw revenue increase 11% last month, and other retailers like The Limited, Neiman Marcus and TJX that had gains in April, it isn't exactly setting the clothing retail world ablaze.

Abercrombie & Fitch, Aeropostale, American Eagle Outfitters, Hot Topic, Wet Seal and even Target (Stock Quote: TGT) were among the clothiers continuing to stitch together an existence through revenue downturns. It also doesn't mean that consumers are sharing the wardrobe wealth, as only 5.6% said new clothing for their children is a post-recession priority.

VACATIONS

This may be the year someone gets bludgeoned with a blunt object for using the term "staycation." In the most indiscrete return to discretionary spending of the post-recession era, 13% of survey respondents told BIGresearch they need a vacation and are willing to shell out more to take one.

A survey by travel search engine Kayak yielded similar results, with 95% of respondents saying they intend to travel this year, with 41% saying the economy won't affect their plans.

Travelocity also found that 49% of those surveyed planned to increase their travel this summer, compared to just 10% in 2009. This is either fortuitous or absolutely terrible timing. For the optimistic traveler, Travelocity says the cost of a hotel room is down 14% in the U.S. and 9.5% abroad since 2008, while vacation rental site HomeAway finds that rentals are roughly half the price of hotels and 38% of vacation home owners are offering a percentage off of their rate this year.

For pessimists, it should be noted that Travelocity also found that domestic airfares are up 9%, with international flights costing 10% more on average.

HOME IMPROVEMENTS

Once consumers feel fairly secure about their employment status and financial future, it's time to stop jiggling the handle. We've hinted about a home-improvement turnaround before, but BIGresearch's survey found that 13% of respondents are ready to spend more on sprucing up their property. The U.S. Census Bureau reported more than 3% growth in home and garden sales last month compared to March, while Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies predicts 5% growth in home improvement spending in 2010.

In terms of spending, American Express' (Stock Quote: AXP) Spending and Saving Tracker predicts that 85% of its survey respondents will spend an average of $6,200 before next January. What will they spend on? According to NPD Group, home improvement shoppers have already spent 44% more on garage storage and organization, 37% more on walk-behind mowers, 22% more on leaf blowers and 21% more on sanders in March and April of this year than they did during the same period in 2009.

Retailers are buying into that line of thinking, with both Home Depot (Stock Quote: HD) and Lowe's (Stock Quote: LOW) predicting 2.5% to 6% growth this year.

COMPUTERS

Before Steve Jobs dislocates a shoulder patting himself on the back for singlehandedly ending the recession by selling millions of Apple (Stock Quote: AAPL) iPads, he should know Americans are spreading the wealth when it comes to swapping out their computers.

Researchers at Gartner found that PC shipments to the U.S. increased 20% in the first quarter from the same period in 2009. Though Apple's market share grew 34% in that period, it paled compared to 50% improvements for both Acer and Toshiba. Meanwhile, NPD says desktop sales improved 33%, with Microsoft (Stock Quote: MSFT) Windows desktop sales up 15% since the launch of Windows 7 after dropping for 21 of the previous 22 months.

DATE NIGHTS

Yes, we would like fries with that. Though 18% of Americans visited restaurants less frequently so they could do other things in 2009, according to NPD, only 14% did the same this year. That may not seem like much, but those small steps are exactly how restaurants are earning their way back into the black.

BIGresearch's survey found that 8.4% of consumers think it's time to spend less time at the stove and more time making reservations. That's going to help, as NPD notes a 0.8% decline in restaurant revenue from 2008 to 2009 didn't stem from shrinking bills — which actually jumped 3% — but a 3% drop in traffic for that period and 14 consecutive months of decline overall.

This year, the consumer is already taking up more places at the table. According to the Consumer Price Index, the amount spent on food away from home is actually up 1.2% from March 2009 compared to a 0.7% decline for food prepared at home.

That's put a better taste in the mouths of folks at Yum Brands, Texas Roadhouse, Domino's Pizza, McDonald's (Stock Quote: MCD) and Darden Restaurants, which all posted improved earnings.

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