MANATEE -- Consumer spending across Florida swelled through summer, outperforming inflation and giving retailers high expectations for the return of snowbirds this fall.
From cars to cupcakes, shoppers showed an increased willingness to open their wallets during a summer season when sales in Manatee are typically at their worst, according to tax records.
The trend has given recession-battered merchants new life as the region works to mount a comeback from the dark days of the downturn.
Consumer spending, which accounts for two-thirds of all economic activity, muscled a 3 percent boost to gross sales in Manatee and Sarasota this summer, capped off by a strong "back-to-school" shopping campaign.
Although the gains were mild once adjusted for inflation, on the heels of a recession when the rising cost of commodities ate into profits, retailers will take the small victories as they come.
"During the recession people only bought what they needed and put the rest toward savings or debt," said John Fleming, spokesman for the Florida Retail Federation. "Consumers have picked up their discretionary spending. That's a great sign that should have a snowball effect."
From May through July, Manatee merchants grossed $2.39 billion in sales, a 3 percent rise from the same three months a year ago and a 12 percent increase from summer 2010, according to Florida Department of Revenue data.
In a healthy year, gross sales will climb at a rate of 2 to 5 percent to account for inflation, the rising cost of commodities and population growth, while still leaving room for actual improvements. Manatee's summer fit the bill.
In Sarasota, the $2.82 billion in gross sales reported by retailers since May was similarly up 3 percent from 2011 and 6 percent from 2010.
The trend was even stronger across the Sunshine State, where retail spending notched $229 billion during the summer months. That represents a 6 percent jump from last year and 12 percent from two years ago.
In all, it has been the best summer on record for Florida retail.
But despite those gains, some experts still believe the snail's pace growth is slower than it should be at this stage of recovery.
Uncertainty surrounding the November elections, federal deficit and the financial crisis in Europe also could temper expectations for the holidays.
"The merchants are happy compared to where the deep recession was, but it's inconsistent," said Sean Snaith, an economist with the University of Central Florida. "We're seeing more burst than sustained acceleration at this point, and the housing market and labor market both play into that."
Many of the summer improvements have come
with discretionary spending that took the biggest hit during the recession.
For example, restaurant revenues in Florida grew 8.9 percent in July compared to a year ago, while car dealerships saw a 9.2 percent bump and furniture stores increased sales by 12 percent during the month.
Toyota of Lakewood on State Road 64 East in Bradenton has seen business get better each month since opening in December.
Now selling two and half new cars to every pre-owned vehicle, the dealership expects sales to spike further as the holiday season approaches.
"We're on the upswing," General Manager Peter Hawley said. "The last couple of months have been the best since we opened."
Pier 22, a waterfront restaurant in downtown Bradenton, also has dodged the typical summer slowdown with an uptick in its off-site catering and banquet business.
Owner and Chef Greg Campbell said it looks like the local economy is beginning to turn the corner.
"It looks like people are doing more large-scale events, and that's a very good sign," Campbell said. "Our business has been different this summer than the past, but it has been positive."
Campbell hopes the October completion of the Riverwalk project will bring added patronage during peak season. The new attraction has the potential to draw 250,000 residents and tourists when opening, creating an estimated $12 million in consumer spending, according to the city.
Other retailers are using the summer to strategically reinvest in stores with new floor layouts, updated advertising and an enhanced focus on Internet commerce.
At Bradenton-based Bealls, both the department and outlet stores reported a better summer than 2011, which was actually worse than the year before.
Company officials attribute the gains to additional brands and merchandise. A new IT system also has improved back-office efficiency.
"There's been a lot of pent-up demand, where last year people were still holding off," said Bill Webster, director of public and government affairs for Bealls. "I think all of these things will feed a good season going forward."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman