Four reasons why the consumer is so confusing — and what that may mean for retail earnings

People walk through a nearly empty shopping mall in Waterbury, Connecticut.

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High food prices. Low unemployment. And eye-popping spending on concert tickets and European trips.

Retailers are chasing shoppers as they navigate contradictory dynamics like cooling inflation, rising interest rates and pandemic-induced jolts to the way people live, work and shop.

That has made it tricky to predict consumer spending.

“We’ve been dealing with massive imbalances in the economy and big shifts in spending patterns, investment patterns, supply disruptions, all of that stuff. And then the reversal of all of those shocks,” said Aditya Bhave, a senior U.S. economist at Bank of America. “So that’s been the big challenge.”

The swirl of confusing trends tees up a closely watched retail earnings season that could offer more clarity about consumers and the economy. Home Depot, Target and Walmart will kick it off this week, followed by other major retailers like Lowe’s, Best Buy and Macy’s.

The reports come as opinions about the economy have grown more optimistic. Economists at Bank of America and JPMorgan recently scrapped calls for a recession this year. Wall Street investors have rallied behind calls for a “soft landing,” or a successful effort by the Federal Reserve to slow down the economy and higher prices by raising rates — but without tipping the country into a sharp economic downturn.

Yet concerns linger. Andrew Garthwaite, global equity strategist at Credit Suisse, predicted in a note to clients last week that the U.S. economy will head into a recession next year and drag down stocks.

As the biggest U.S. retailers gear up to report earnings, here are four reasons why consumer spending and those companies’ sales have become harder to predict:

Inflation is cooling, but necessities are still pricey

Americans got some good news recently: prices aren’t going up as much as they used to be. That trend may make shoppers go to stores for more wants rather than needs.

The consumer price index, which tracks the prices consumers pay for a key basket of goods and services, rose 3.2% in July compared with a year ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Thursday. That’s a much more modest increase than the 40-year inflation highs that consumers dealt with about a year ago.

Some brands have even spoken about cutting prices. For example, denim maker Levi Strauss‘ CEO, Chip Bergh, said in a CNBC interview last month that the company will reduce the cost of about a half dozen items, including 502 and 512 jeans, by $10. More price-sensitive shoppers typically buy those items, he said.

Yet Americans are still spending more on just about everything, even as wages start to rise at a higher rate than prices. Those more expensive items include necessities like groceries, housing and cars. For example, prices for food at home have shot up 25% compared with before the pandemic in January 2019, according to an analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor data.

Even Levi’s reflects that. The jeans that it plans to price lower will be sold at $69.50 after the reduction — more than the $59.50 they went for pre-pandemic.

Questions about cooling inflation and price changes, and how they will affect consumer spending, will likely come up during the analyst question-and-answer session on every retailer’s earnings call, said Michael Baker, a retail analyst at D.A. Davidson. Slower inflation, while good for consumers, will make retailers’ sales numbers look weaker in the coming quarters, even if a company sells the same number of units.

The silver lining? If prices rise by smaller amounts or even fall, consumers may spend more freely. Target, Walmart and Macy’s have spoken for the past few quarters about customers who have skipped big-ticket purchases, such as clothing and electronics, as they spend more on necessities.

Consumers could decide to splurge again just in time for the crucial holiday season, Baker said.

Credit card balances have shot up, but so have wages

Many consumers may have pinched pennies — but shoppers are still racking up some big bills.

Americans’ credit card balances topped $1 trillion for the first time ever, according to new data released last week by the New York Federal Reserve. That raises fresh questions about whether consumers can afford to keep up their spending habits at retailers’ stores and websites — or will have to cut back.

High debt could get people into trouble, if they can’t afford to pay down their balances and rack up interest charges each month. The average interest rate for U.S. credit cards has spiked to nearly 21%, according to the Federal Reserve Board. That’s a more than 6 percentage point jump in the past 18 months, driven by the rate hikes the Fed has used to tame inflation.

On top of credit card balances, millions of Americans will resume student loan payments this fall. Those installments were frozen for more than three years because of the pandemic.

Bhave, the Bank of America economist, said there’s no need to panic. Americans have bigger bills because inflation has driven up prices. But many people also make more money than they used to.

Thanks to a tight labor market, Americans’ wages have risen significantly over the past two years. As inflation cools, the growth of average hourly earnings has begun to outpace the rise in the consumer price index.

People may grumble a lot about higher prices, but they still have jobs, Baker said. He called low unemployment “the big offset that’s helped consumer spending hang in.”

Spending on experiences is up, but it may spark new purchases of goods

From splashing out on Taylor Swift concert tickets to taking two-week trips to Italy, Americans are shelling out on experiences after years cooped up at home.

Just ask the airlines.

But what does that mean for specific retailers? U.S. consumers are now spending more of their personal income on services and less on goods — a reversal of the trends during the Covid pandemic.

Yet retail sales, while decelerating, have been stronger than some feared.

“There’s no denying that sales are slowing, which in and of itself one might think is not great, but I actually think it’s pretty healthy,” D.A. Davidson’s Baker said. “Nothing seems to be slowing such that it’s falling off the table.”

He said softening retail sales could signal the U.S. is on track to avoid a recession because it may stop the Fed from raising interest rates further. Ultimately, that would be good for both retailers and consumers, he said.

Nikki Baird, vice president of strategy at retail-focused software company Aptos, said she’s been surprised by consumers’ resilience. Even as Americans juggle expenses like dining out and going on vacation, they are still shopping.

“I thought with all of the revenge travel that’s been happening, that would impact consumer spending on goods,” she said. “But I guess they were [in a] ‘If I’m gonna go on that cruise, I need a new dress’ kind of mentality.”

The pandemic shocked buying patterns, but more big-ticket purchases could be coming

A new iPhone, a trendy outfit, or a broken dishwasher.

Retailers often get a bump when seasons change, new products debut and old items break. Yet the pandemic disrupted the typical cadence of purchases – and is still messing with retailers’ sales patterns.

For example, many Americans bought pricier and longer-lasting items like kitchen appliances, furniture and laptops when they had stimulus dollars in their bank accounts and faced long stays at home. Now, consumers may be closer to refreshing pricier items bought during the pandemic, and it could be a boon for many major retailers.

Best Buy CEO Corie Barry said in late May that she anticipates lower demand this year for the company’s big-ticket electronics. But she is hopeful the replacement cycle will pick up again next year.

In the nearer term, two seasonal factors could help. Retailers, including Walmart and Target, may get a bump from early back-to-school spending – especially from college students getting headboards, coffeemakers and more. Home Depot and Lowe’s just got through the springtime, the holiday season of home improvement when homeowners spruce up yards and contractors take advantage of better weather.

The ripple effects of the pandemic will still affect retailers’ outlooks for the rest of the year. The government stimulus dollars that served as a lifeline for many and fueled discretionary purchases for others have dwindled. The personal savings rate in the U.S. is less than half what it was before Covid, after Americans socked away money early in the pandemic and then felt more financially secure because of a tight labor market.

The pause on student loan payments likely supported higher levels of discretionary spending for the last three years, too, said Baird of Aptos. Since those payments resume this fall, that could factor into retailers’ forecasts for the back half of the year.

— CNBC’s Leslie Josephs, Jeff Cox and Gabrielle Fonrouge contributed to this report.

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