A shopper walks through the outdoor San Tan Village Mall Monday, March 28, 2011 in Gilbert, Ariz. A private research group says soaring prices in gas and other household costs pulled down consumers’ confidence in March, after hitting a three-year high in February. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Matt York

The jobs may not be returning very fast, but a new report Monday shows the Arizonans who are employed are loosening up on their wallets.

New figures from the state Department of Revenue showed taxable retail sales in May hit nearly $4.58 billion. That's a 7.6-percent increase from the same time a year earlier.

That figure is still short of the $4.81 billion figure for the same time seven years ago, but it does come close to how much consumers were spending in May 2006.

“I'd give it a ‘B,’” is the way economist Dennis Hoffman of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University rated the state's performance.

He said there are some particularly bright signs in the data.

Sales at motor vehicle dealers hit $645 million in May, a 5.8 percent year-over-year gain. But Hoffman also pointed out that these sales actually topped $700 million in April.

“That's something we haven't done since 2007,” he said.

“You've got folks with the wherewithal to buy consumer durables like cars, like furniture and fixtures,” Hoffman said, saying that category is up about 8 percent when averaging out the most recent three months this year compared with last year.

There was an apparent spike in purchase of building materials, with a 46 percent jump year over year. But Hoffman said that is likely an anomaly, with the averaged-out annual increase running about 11 percent, still a pretty healthy clip.

“It's overall continued signs that the Arizona consumer is doing their part — especially in light of the fact that employment growth has been so slow,” he said.

Arizona shed 800 private sector jobs between April and May, and it added just 42,700 private jobs from the same time a year earlier.

“Employment growth has just been so slow, surprisingly so,” Hoffman said.

He said Arizona used to be among the fastest-growing states in job growth among neighboring states. Now, he said, it is “among the laggards, which is a major concern.”

Closely linked to job growth is home construction which Hoffman said will take years to recover at the current pace.

That still leave the question: If job growth is slow, why all the new spending?

Hoffman said those who are employed apparently find it worthwhile.

On one hand, he said, there are interest rates running at pretty much historically low rates. He said that may encourage those who can get loans to borrow the money to make investments in things that will pay off later.

He knows a bit about that: Hoffman said he just got a home equity line of credit at 3.25 percent to borrow money to install new energy-efficient windows, figuring he'll make up the cost in lower utility bills.

Hoffman said the same situation is likely driving new car sales, what with the newer models having much greater fuel efficiency than much of what Arizonans are now driving.

“You can pick up a new car and save quite a bit off the monthly bill in gas savings now,” he said. “It's really amazing how much that fuel efficiency has come up.”

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