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by Jen Aronoff

More frugality, less splurging: Ten months after last fall’s financial upheaval, amid an ongoing recession, local shoppers are still reluctant to spend – especially on items that aren’t necessities.

The result is rippling across the region in the form of declining sales and tax revenues, dormant development and more empty shopping space. And it’s unlikely to turn around much until people regain confidence about their jobs and employment prospects, experts say.

“People haven’t stopped shopping at their favorite restaurants and stores, but they’re more careful about buying what they really need rather than what they might have wanted on a whim,” said Jennifer Stanton, president of Advisory Services, a Charlotte-based retail consultancy. “But the stores that have made an effort and built a loyal clientele…(and that are) paying attention to what people are actually buying are making it through.”

Sales during the coming back-to-school season are projected to be lower, and at least one analyst who studies the market doesn’t expect a retail rebound until Labor Day 2010.

This year so far, through May, the most recent month available, taxable sales in Mecklenburg County declined 16 percent compared with the same period the year before. That figure also fell in surrounding counties, ranging from 6.4 percent in Cabarrus to 13.7 percent in Iredell. The drops come after more than a decade of shoppers pushing retail sales higher across the region.

“Their mood is more selective,” said Connye Cross, owner of Uncommon Scents, a 23-year-old Huntersville gift shop that has seen sales fall slightly so far this year, compared with last year. ““I’ve used more energy to provide the right products in the store…so that the economy would not play as much (of a role). I have really studied and researched, searching for the right price, something unique, something powerful.”

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