Hope truly did spring eternal for the nation’s retailers, as the major store chains expected lower gasoline prices and the government’s reported declining jobless rate to attract shoppers eager to spend some of that stashed cash.
But such retail giants as Macy’s, Kohl's and Nordstrom have reported disappointing sales and declining store traffic.
"The economy is bouncing back, and customers just aren’t hitting stores or filling up digital carts like the shopping giants thought they would," the Washington Post
“There seems to be some more macro issue, given both performance of ourselves and our competition,” said Wes McDonald, chief financial officer at Kohl’s, on a conference call with investors Thursday. “There seems to be some change in consumer behavior.”
Consumer spending has decelerated for three quarters in a row, and the U.S. economy grew just 0.5% in the first quarter. Consumer spending still accounts for two-thirds of the U.S. economy, and it has grown at a paltry 2.2% per year, after adjusting for inflation, since the end of the recession, Yahoo Finance
points out. Oil prices remain low but have rebounded sharply this year—swings that could keep consumers on edge. U.S. crude oil has surged about 75% since its February low.
“There’s some kind of hesitation with the U.S. consumer,” David Donabedian, chief investment officer at Atlantic Trust Private Wealth Management, told the Wall Street Journal.
“That’s a big reason why the U.S. economy is really just limping along here.”
An unscientific survey found a wide variety of possible reasons for the change:
- These kids today just want to stash it away: Big-spending baby boomers have given way to the more cautious millennials. "In the early 2000s, 18- to 29-year-olds were the least interested in saving of any age group, with just 43% saying they prefer saving over spending. Today, they’re the most determined to save, with 66% saying that’s their preference. Among 31- to 49-year-olds, just 61% favor saving," Yahoo Finance reported. “Millennials, if they have money left after paying their student loans, do put money aside,” says IHS economist Chris Christopher.
- The retail industry is “overstored”: Many analysts think there are too many physical outlets chasing too few shoppers. “My personal view of the retail real estate industry in the U.S. is that it is over-retailed,” Sandeep Mathrani, chief executive of General Growth Properties, told analysts this month. “The primary reason retail properties have closed and will close is obsolescence.”
- You can buy everything online: The rise of Internet shopping appears to be reaching a new threshold. Online is no longer just for books and handheld electonrics Analysts at financial services firm Cowen & Co. predict that Amazon.com is on pace to overtake Macy’s as the largest apparel retailer by 2017.
- It's the "experience," stupid: Airline travel is at record levels and restaurant sales growth has been solid, suggesting that consumers are choosing to shell out for experiences instead of goods that fill their closets or their kitchens. Shoppers "are getting pickier," said Ken Bernstein, chief executive of shopping center owner Acadia Realty Trust, in a recent interview. He said sales at his malls increased in the first quarter, but noted that shopping centers were increasingly housing services such as hair salons and fitness centers instead of stores where people buy goods.
- Fast changing fashion trends and style fads: “The department stores and some of these specialty retailers are just struggling because they have a bunch of apparel that’s not trend-right,” said Brian Yarbrough, a retail analyst at Edward Jones told the Post
- "But I don't feel rich ...": Homeownership has yet to find a bottom and lingers near a 50-year low. "Let's not forget that owning your home is the fundamental tenet of the American dream. Once that is taken away, even the perception of it becoming unreachable has real effects on consumer behavior," Seeking Alpha explains. "With the dream seeming ever farther, consumers buckle down and start saving more."
- Stalled wages no reason to party: Shoppers are preferring to spend on big-ticket items such as electronics, home improvement and cars than on clothes. "Consumers, it seems, are willing to invest something like home improvement, which feels prudent, instead of on a handbag or a new party dress, which feels indulgent," the Washington Post explained. Also, Newsmax Finance Insider and renowned economist Larry Kudlow claims "middle class wage earners have not had a wage rise since the year 2000."
- Political distrust, disdain and disgust: The political uncertainty and garden-variety fear and loathing of all White House hopefuls. “We’re seeing economic uncertainty, and, on top of that, we have a presidential election that might lead to restrictions in economic commerce in the future,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors. Meanwhile, many American voters have actually threatened to leave the country if their desired candidate loses. Could they be stockpiling money already? “How safe are my assets going to be with the change in the political landscape?” retired worker Fab Michetti told Bloomberg. “I would rather have my money in my pocket.”
- Other bills and obligations are rising: Nondiscretionary spending on health, insurance, education and housing has taken an extra 4% out of personal-consumption expenditures in 2015 compared with 2000, Craig Johnson, president of consulting firm Customer Growth Partners, told WSJ.com.
- Some brick-and-mortar stores are boring: “The blunt truth is that Macy’s does not give consumers a reason to visit its stores,” Neil Saunders, managing director of retail research firm Conlumino, wrote in a note. Many locations “are poorly merchandised, hard to shop, lack any inspiration, and have fairly mediocre customer service,” the WSJ cited him as saying.
- We don't need that new pair of new shoes: Wesley McDonald, Kohl's Corp. chief financial officer, senior executive vice president and head of investor relations, said consumer behavior has shifted in an unfavorable direction for clothing retailers. “They’re not buying apparel, I mean that’s a simple answer,” McDonald said, the Milwaukee Business Journal reported. “They’re spending money on restaurants and experiences and until we get some more excitement in apparel, it's going to remain, in my opinion, a replenishment market.”
- This isn't your father's mall shopper: "There's an Old Consumer and a New Consumer, divided by the Great Recession," Robert J. Samuelson wrote in the Washington Post. "The Old Consumer borrowed eagerly and spent freely. The New Consumer saves soberly and spends prudently. Of course, there are millions of exceptions to these generalizations. Before the recession, not everyone was a credit addict; now, not everyone is a disciplined saver. Still, vast changes in beliefs and habits have occurred," he explained.
(Newsmax wire services contributed to this report).
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