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Here’s what Americans are really spending money on

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist
Here’s what Americans are really spending money on

The American consumer is letting investors down. People aren’t buying enough clothes, housewares or TVs. Weak retail sales numbers are holding back the stock market, with shares of many big retailers such as Macy’s (M), Kohl’s (KSS) and J.C. Penney (JCP) languishing during the last month.

Investors, however, may be looking for the wrong kind of spending. Americans are, in fact, getting out their wallets—but they’re not spending it with traditional retailers. “We’re seeing people consistently spending. We just don’t want stuff,” says Sarah Quinlan of MasterCard Advisors. “We are spending on experiences. And it doesn't matter what your income level is, you have to feel you’re getting a value for the experience you're purchasing.

Here are several things Americans are spending plenty of money on:

Air travel. Enplanements, a statistic that tracks passenger boarding, were up 2.8% during the first two months of the year (the latest available data), according to the Department of Transportation. Quinlan says summer bookings look even better. Plus, growth is coming from consumers, not business travelers. When people are comfortable booking an airline flight a couple of months in advance, that demonstrates confidence in job security and spending power. Airline revenue shows the trend. First quarter revenue declined slightly at American Airlines (AAL), which is still consolidating as it finalizes its merger with U.S. Airways, but year-over-year revenue was up 5.3% at Delta (DAL), 3.2% at United (UAL) and 6.3% at Southwest (LUV), according to S&P Capital IQ.

Hotels. Occupancy rates were up 3.1% in the first quarter, year over year, according to Smith Travel Research. The overall occupancy rate of 61.1% was the highest Smith has ever recorded in the first quarter. And revenue per available room was up by a hefty 8%. This comes as the strong dollar makes it more expensive for foreigners to travel to the United States, which suggests much of the growth in lodging is coming from Americans spending money in America.

Restaurants. Sales at food service and drinking places were up 9% during the first 4 months of 2015, according to the Census Bureau, which tracks the official retail sales numbers. Americans are more comfortable dining out and committing to restaurant spending when they travel.

Jewelry. Mastercard’s (MA) data show jewelry sales rose for 25-straight months before dipping slightly in April. The average purchase costs a whopping $2,400. This probably reflects wealthier consumers spending on stuff that will provide lasting satisfaction.

Gasoline. The sharp drop in oil and gasoline prices means Americans are paying less for gas. But they’re buying more of it. The volume of gasoline sales rose 26% during the last five months, compared with the prior year, according to the Energy Information Administration. That means Americans are going out more, which creates more opportunities to spend.

Smartphones. Everybody will have one eventually, with sales up 28% so far in 2015, according to the NPD Group . Phones, of course, are used for many things other than making calls, such as social networking, games and streaming audio and video. What we’re really paying for is connectivity, information and entertainment.

Furniture and furnishings. Sales have been up 5 months in a row, according to MasterCard, suggesting that people are finally replacing worn-out stuff they've been holding onto until times improve--which, apparently, they have.

And here’s where consumer spending has been surprisingly weak:

Department stores. Year-over-year sales are down 1.9% for the first four months of 2015, according to Cenus data, even though job growth has been strong during the last year and incomes have risen by about 2%. Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren blamed weak first-quarter sales on a labor slowdown at West Coast ports, rough winter weather and a rising dollar for the slump. But it may also be due to a general shift away from merchandise and toward experiences.

Electronics (other than smartphones). Sales at stores that sell computers, software, cameras, TVs and appliances are down 1% so far in 2015, according to Census.

Teen clothing. Overall clothing sales are up 2.3% this year, according to Census, which isn’t bad, but teenagers—tomorrow’s most coveted shoppers--are losing interest in clothes, especially the stuff targeted specifically at them by stores such as Aeropostale (ARO), Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) and American Apparel (APP). Annual surveys by Piper Jaffray show that clothing as a percentage of teen spending has dropped from 30% to 20%--and deep discounts haven't spurred sales. Teens need to wear something, of course, and the clothes they are wearing tend to come from “athleisure” purveyors such as Lululemon (LULU) and fast-fashion chains such as Zara and H&M.

Auto repairs and tire replacement. This segment was strong during recent years, Quinlan says, since people put off new-car purchases and nursed the old jalopy for another year or two. But the opposite is now happening, with auto sales up a strong 8% this year and spending on repairs falling off.

For struggling merchants, the problem isn’t shell-shocked consumers afraid to pull out their wallets. It’s outdated business models tuned to the spending habits of the past. Consumers seem unlikely to abandon their new habits, which means business need to change theirs.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.