Three signs consumers are inching back

January 14, 2011: 11:48 AM ET

We're dining out again and buying airlines tickets. But is it a comeback?


Meet me at Applebee's?

For decades, the consumer has been the engine driving growth in this country. Since the economic downturn started in 2007, consumers have watched as their most prized assets – investments and homes – erased much of their value. They have felt poorer, so they've saved more and spent less as they paid off debt following years of too much spending.

But things are starting to look up for the consumer, even if ever so slowly. They're still gun-shy, but improving U.S. retail sales in late November and December have led some to believe that spending will continue picking up in the coming months.

It's two steps forward, one step back. In the first week of January, Gallup Poll Chief Economist Dennis Jacobe noted that daily consumer spending in stores, restaurants, gas stations, and online dropped dramatically. Spending averaged $55 in the week ending January 9 – down as expected but also well below the $68 average for the same week during the previous year. Whatever reasons for the big drop, Jacobe says "there are no signs that consumer spending will improve much in early January 2011." More

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