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HEARD ON THE BEAT / CORPORATE

Have Jobs, Will Spend: O.C. Consumer Economy Thrives

April 13, 1999|JOHN O'DELL

With unemployment hovering at its lowest point since Orange County emerged from the ocean back in primordial times, it is no wonder that area merchants keep raking it in. People with jobs have money to spend, and spend it they do.

Taxable retail spending in the county during the first three months of 1998 (the most recent data the state has released) rose 7.3% to an all-time record of $8.48 billion.

That compares with a 5.3% average increase statewide and makes the county's consumer economy look like a sprinter in a speed-walking race. In Los Angeles County, which leads the state inretail dollars spent--$20.8 billion of them in the first quarter last year--the rate of increase was only 4.6%.

Of all the state's major counties, only San Diego County outdid Orange County in the rate of increase, with taxable retail sales for 1998's first quarter up 8.5% to $6.74 billion.

The numbers from the just-released quarterly taxable sales book published by the California State Board of Equalization provide--as always--a fascinating glimpse at what we spend our money on.

Topping the list is the perennial leader: new cars. Auto dealers in Orange County reported $738.6 million in sales for the three months. New homes would certainly account for more, but they aren't taxable so they aren't reported.

Next, we spent $705.6 million in restaurants, fast-food places and bars that serve food.

We spent $633.6 million at general merchandise stores--department stores like Macy's, big-box discounters like Costco and off-price chain outlets like Target.

Service stations took fourth-place honors, pulling in a hefty $367.9 million. (With the run-up in gasoline price in the last month, it will be interesting to see what that number jumps to when the report for the first quarter of 1999 comes out next year. Stay tuned.)

Supermarkets and other food stores ranked fifth, taking in $348.4 million. Shoppers in Orange County also spent $337.8 million at retail places specializing in office, school and business supplies; $292.4 million in clothing and shoe stores; $242.8 million at lumber and building material retailers; $167.7 million on household goods and furnishings; and $111.1 million on used cars.

The city with the biggest share of retail sales was Anaheim, at $848 million. Irvine was second with $788 million, and Santa Ana was third with $741 million.

John O'Dell covers major Orange County corporations and manufacturing for The Times. He can be reached at (714) 966-5831 and at john.odell@latimes.com.

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