Going into this holiday season, there are two consumer economies, really. One economy of the very wealthy who are on a luxury spending spree, and one economy with everyone else.
"You've got one group of people who can't find a job, or are close to losing theirs," said Cameron Mitchell, who owns the Ocean Prime high-end steakhouse in Tampa. "Then you've got the wealthy."
A growing pile of data shows companies that sell diamonds, yachts, steaks and designer ladies shoes are doing better than they have in years, helping split the U.S. consumer market between a world of Tiffany & Co. and a world of Walmart.
That gap is growing quickly in Tampa Bay.
For instance, Nordstrom this summer had a waiting list for Chanel sequined tweed coats costing $9,010 apiece. And Neiman Marcus recently sold out of its Christian Louboutin "Bianca" platform pumps at $775 a pair.
How does that happen in an economy flooded with foreclosures and layoffs?
One reason is that families who live primarily on investments have done well. Despite recent volatility, the Dow Industrial Average has generally hovered around 11,000, almost twice where it stood at the depth of the market in 2009.
The chief executive of Saks Fifth Avenue recently told investors that "We do not see the high-end consumer falling apart." High-end jeweler Tiffany & Co. recently said its quarterly sales rose 30.5 percent from this time last year, and sales are higher than they have been in four years.
And when they go out to eat, the wealthy are spending more.
Cameron Mitchell said his Ocean Prime steakhouse in Tampa is the No. 1 performer among all his 30-plus restaurants, and sales at this location grew 10 percent last month.
Yachting is coming back too. Clearwater-based boat seller MarineMax Inc. recently reversed a string of losses and said sales at stores open more than year grew 33 percent, compared with a decrease of 17 percent a year before.
"For our customer, it's not a question of whether they can afford it – they can," said William McGill, chairman of MarineMax, the nation's largest recreational boat dealer. "The decision is about how they feel about what is going on in the world … The pent-up demand has been building."
Overall, sales at luxury store chains climbed 8.5 percent in the seven months ended in August, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, and global luxury goods sales have continued 2010's double-digit growth rate and will grow 10 percent again in 2011 by one estimate from the consulting firm Bain & Co.
This is "not simply a rebound," Bain wrote in a report, "but instead a sustained renewal of spending on luxury."
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Looking just below that affluent level, there's deep and growing gulf when it comes to income and spending.
For instance, despite the disastrous housing market here, the number of Hillsborough County's households making more than $200,000 actually grew from 13,500 to more than 17,000 since 2005.
Meanwhile the county's overall median income has fallen back to 2006 levels, according to recent census data – meaning the middle section of earners are moving into either the top or the bottom segment, with the lowest-portion growing more quickly.
That dynamic is playing out nationwide, and the investment firm Credit Suisse called it a "bifurcation" between two kinds of households: Balance sheet families, and income statement families.
"Balance Sheet" families generally make their spending decisions by looking at their investment portfolio, not their weekly or monthly paychecks.
That segment of upper-tier households with an annual income of more than $100,000 had an unemployment rate of just 3.6 percent, and their average income grew 10 percent a year, excluding any capital gains from the stock market.
That group actually saw its share of all income grow from 42 percent to 45 percent over the last decade, a Bain report found, and they are "returning rapidly to robust spending levels."
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By contrast, "income statement" families that makes less than $100,000 a year and entirely focuses on their paychecks for their spending decisions. That group saw its median income decline 4 percent from 2002 to 2011, and consumers that had less than $50,000 in income have an unemployment rate of 17 percent.
A "whopping 71 percent" of those households plan to cut back their spending this holiday season, according to market tracker SymphonyIRI, as 70 percent of that group are concerned about the basic cost of food.
SymphonyIRI said that 81 percent of shoppers said they plan to shift much of their holiday buying online this year, compared to 54 percent last year.
As opposed to strolling the mall, that kind of online shopping is far more deliberate, and tends to have buyers seeking out one specific item online.
Stores that cater to anyone but the wealthy are fast trying to restructure themselves to handle a new reality of shoppers with ever-tighter spending plans.
Home improvement retailer Lowe's Companies Inc. recently said it would close 20 stores in low-performing areas.
Dollar stores are among the fastest-growing segment of the retail market, with some chains opening up hundreds of new locations.
Walmart recently has struggled to maintain its revenue at existing stores, and has started shifting lower-priced inventory to aisle end-caps at the end of the month when customers are running short of cash.
At the same time, Walmart is now guaranteeing the lowest price on many items throughout the holiday season, and will match lower prices even for items people already bought at Walmart.
Meanwhile, one budget-minded program of yesteryear is making a comeback at stores like Sears, Kmart, Toys R Us and most recently Walmart: Layaway programs.