For shoppers, cash is back in vogue
Americans are shying away from incurring more credit card debt, but that may be a problem for retailers.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The latest fall style for credit-addicted Americans: paying with cash.
But that's not necessarily a good thing for retailers who are struggling to lift sagging sales.
What's more, industry watchers point out that a growing preference for cash poses a more direct challenge to online retailers - since computers don't accept cash just yet.
Credit expert Howard Dvorkin said Americans tend to resort to cash in troubling times.
"There was a retreat to cash after 9/11 (the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks) and the recent market collapse is having a similar effect," said Dvorkin, who is also the founder of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services.
To his point, a survey conducted last month by Javelin Strategy & Research showed 39% of consumers decreased their credit card usage, up from 37% in April.
The survey polled 2,339 consumers nationwide.
Still, since Americans are hard-wired to use credit, Dvorkin thinks this shift to cash will be temporary.
"It's hard to to teach an old dog new tricks," Dvorkin said. "Consumers have short memories. When the economy turns around, they'll return to the same old ways."
Don't tell that to Deanne Durkee. The 44-year-old computer programmer who lives in Dudley, Mass., still has her credit cards but hasn't used them in more than two years.
And she's sticking to cash to make all of her Christmas gift purchases.
"I had $35,000 in credit card debt. I consolidated my debt and I've almost paid off all of it," she said. She intends to hold on to her credit cards for "emergencies only."
"Using cash has been a great lesson for my kids. It's taught them to budget and it's taught them about delayed gratification," Durkee said. "If you wait to buy something, sometimes you realize you don't need or want it anymore."
Christopher Bukowski, 29, a video producer from Florida, uses cash every time he shops. "It keeps me honest and within my means," he said.
That wasn't always the case.
Like Durkee, he also had thousands of dollars in credit card debt. "I was living in a false reality," he said. "I was so used to reaching for the credit card. It was easy to buy the big flatscreen TV even when it wasn't necessary."
Bukowski has eliminated his debt and he's making only cash purchases. "I might get a credit card again in the future," he said.
The shift away from credit cards - even if it's short-lived - could be another blow for retailers who are already facing a very difficult sales year.
"With credit cards, consumers spend 30% more (on purchases) than with cash," Dvorkin said.
So if retailers see cash being used more in coming weeks, it could potentially hurt sales over the critical holiday shopping period of November through December.
That two-month period typically accounts for half or more of merchants' annual profits and sales.
"Obviously there is much more disappointment coming [for retailers]," said Stevan Buxbaum, retail analyst with consulting firm Buxbaum Group.
"If consumers are paying with cash, they will be more selective in what they're buying and they'll probably buy fewer items," Buxbaum said.
Online merchants are feeling especially anxious.
"I am very worried about consumers using cash," said Neel Grover, CEO of Buy.com. The e-tailer sells a variety of products, including clothes, computers, books and luggage.
So Grover said he's partnering with vendors who provide alternative payment options in a bid to hold on to crucial sales in the days ahead.
Grover said Ebillme is one such partner.
Ebillme is a cash-based payment system through which consumers don't have to provide the e-tailer or ebillme with their credit or debit card number, or any other financial information.
Ebillme CEO Marwan Forzley said his company has received a lot of interest lately from top e-tailers. "We are in active discussions with many of the leading pure-play online merchants and traditional retailers with Web sites," he said.
Gilbert Fiorentino, CEO of Tigerdirect.com, an online electronics seller, offers its customers the ebillme payment in addition to credit card payment options.
"We've definitely seen some of our customers migrating to ebillme over the last few weeks," Fiorentino said.
"The way I see it is that life has changed for Americans," Forzley said. "It's no longer a buy now, pay later mentality out there.
"People want to buy now and pay now, and sleep better at night," he said.
To that end, Consolidated Credit Counseling Services' Dvorkin offered a win-win proposition for both consumers and retailers.