2011: The Year of the Consumer

The new year will usher in a landmark period of safety and savings for American shoppers.

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If 2010 was a year of financial volatility, then 2011 should be the year of relative calm after the storm for anxious consumers. A series of moves over the last 12 months give consumers more protections than ever before, whether they’re shopping for baby cribs or groceries. “Congress and federal agencies put one landmark consumer protection after another on the books in 2010,” says Travis Plunkett, legislative director for the Consumer Federation of America.

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Here are five ways shoppers will be better off in the new year:

1) Stricter food standards: A string of salmonella infections in items from alfalfa sprouts to crushed red pepper lead to widespread demand for greater oversight of the nation’s food supply. Congress responded with a new law that reforms how the FDA monitors food safety. That marks the biggest change to the oversight system in 70 years, according to the Consumer Federation of America. The law gives the FDA more authority to prevent food contamination and beefs up mandatory inspection periods in food processing plants, among other changes. It should mean that grocery shoppers can have more confidence in what they put in their carts in 2011.

2) Tighter regulations on baby products: After a series of recalls and 32 reported deaths, the Consumer Product Safety Commission decided to end the sale of drop-side cribs altogether. That means parents can no longer buy cribs with movable sides, which sometimes created dangerous gaps. That decision capped a year of high-profile announcements from the commission, including warnings and recalls related to blind cords, baby slings, and strollers. While parents run the risk of recall-fatigue, they are also more informed than ever when it comes to choosing safe products for their children.

If you’re confused about whether or not you own recalled products, call the CPSC’s toll-free consumer hotline, 1-800-638-2772, or visit www.recalls.gov.

3) More help navigating the world of financial products: The new consumer financial protection bureau, which was created in 2010 by the bank reform bill, and is now ramping up. It aims to make complex financial products easier to understand. The bureau will serve as a watchdog over credit cards, mortgages, payday loans, and other products. One goal is to avoid another subprime mortgage meltdown, which economists partially blame on people signing up for mortgages that they couldn't afford and didn't understand.

In 2011, we’ll probably see proposals from the bureau that target practices it considers unfair or deceptive, with a special focus in the areas of complicated mortgages, pricey loans (such as payday loans), the credit scoring system, and debt-related financial services.

[For more money-saving tips, visit the U.S. News Alpha Consumer blog.]

4) Lower smartphone prices: The pricey data plans on smartphones have kept some consumers using their old cell phones, but now, those prices are dropping. Leading the pack is the Samsung Intercept smartphone from Virgin Mobile, which starts at $25 a month. (Consumers still need to purchase the phone itself for $250.) Other companies are now joining the competition to cut their monthly prices, which is good news for consumers—especially anyone still using an older-style cell phone. Apple is also expected to soon make its iPhone available through Verizon Wireless, which also gives consumers more choices.

5) More free shipping offers and other discounts: While this last change has more to do with a healthy bank account than safety, it’s just as important for some shoppers, who are increasingly turning to online discount stores for everything from groceries to clothing. As shoppers becoming more empowered to comparison shop on-the-go with mobile technology, retailers are responding with more discounts and deals to stay competitive. That gives shoppers more control and greater opportunities to save.

Kimberly Palmer is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.