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Have American Consumers Become Snobs?

Stocks in this article: JWN CMG PNRA COST WAL MCD BUD DRI

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The U.S. consumer is abandoning discount store for upscale clearance outlets, all-you-can eat shrimp for daiquiri bars and burger joints for bread bowls and non-GMO burritos. There's a strong chance we're becoming snobs.

The last few weeks have been a seemingly endless string of bleak earnings reports from Walmart  (WMT)Target  (TGT)Macy's  (M)Burger King  (BKW)McDonald's  (MCD) and Darden Restaurants  (DRI) . At the same time, fast-casual restaurant chains including Starbucks (SBUX) , Chipotle  (CMG) and Panera Bread  (PNRA) continue to post gains, upscale chain restaurants like Capital Grille, Maggiano's Little Italy and Bahama Breeze have seen a 5% gain over the last year, according to NPD Group, compared to casual dining's steady losses since 2009. Even in brick-and-mortar retail, Nordstrom Rack  (JWN) has witnessed 4% growth in same-store sales over the last year and 25 new store openings as discount and department-store competitors -- including main-line Nordstrom shops -- watch sales slip.

Since the recession, the term "value" has been kicked around quite a bit, but not discussed in any great measure. To the U.S. consumer, it now trumps all. According to the Census Bureau's 2013 poverty report, the median annual household income in the U.S. in 2012 was $51,017, less than the 2011 median of $51,100. That 2011 number followed two straight years of decline and is nowhere near the $56,080 average salary from 1999. In fact, 2012's real median household income is still 8.7% lower than it was in 2007, just before the recession, and even trails the inflation-adjusted median income of $51,681 earned by U.S. families in 1989.

That means middle-class families have not only failed to gain ground in 24 years, they actually lost more than 600 bucks over that time. That's not terribly insignificant if you consider that the price of the average movie ticket then was $4, compared with $8 now, while the price of a gallon of gas hovered around a dollar, compared with the $3.50 average now.

That's changed just about everybody's spending habits just a bit.

The U.S. auto industry reached 15.6 million vehicle sales in 2013 after bottoming out at 10.4 million in 2009. While the industry is on pace for 15.9 million sales this year, it's still well below the 17.4 million it rung up back in 2001. As a result, the average age of a car on U.S. roads is 11.4 years, according to U.S. automotive data service Polk. That's up from 8.9 years a decade ago and 9.8 as recently as 2007.

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