U.S. Consumers Are Showing Signs of Stress, Retailers Say

Consumers power the U.S. economy, and their capacity to spend has repeatedly defied predictions. In early 2020, after a short but severe recession caused by the pandemic, consumers splurged on big-ticket goods, from patio furniture to flat-screen TVs and home gym equipment. Then came what economists called “revenge spending,” with experiences that were off limits during lockdowns, like traveling and going to concerts, taking precedence.

Now there are signs that some shoppers are becoming more cautious, as Americans’ savings erode, inflation continues to bite and other factors tighten their wallets — namely, the resumption of student loan payments in October. Financial reports from retailers — including Macy’s, Kohl’s, Foot Locker and Nordstrom — that landed this week suggest a shift is underway, from consumers buying with abandon to spending more on their needs.

“Last year it was more psychological,” said Janine Stichter, a retail analyst at the brokerage firm BTIG. “But now that we’ve been dealing with inflation for as long as we have, I just think we’re getting to a point where savings are depleted.”

In the aggregate, consumer spending remains solid. Retail sales in July were stronger than expected, leading some economists to raise their forecasts for economic growth this quarter. A robust labor market and rising wages have buoyed consumer confidence.

But even retailers with strong sales say there are signs of economic strain among shoppers.

“It is clear that the lower-income shopper, our core customer, is still under significant economic pressure,” Michael O’Sullivan, the chief executive of the off-price retailer Burlington Stores, said in a statement on Thursday. In the three months through July, Burlington’s sales rose 4 percent and its profit more than doubled.

Discounters historically perform well during times of economic uncertainty as shoppers across the income spectrum look to save money. Burlington, along with Walmart, Dollar Tree and TJX, the owner of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, all reported a rise in sales last quarter, as shoppers sought discounts on essential items like groceries, turned to cheaper private label products and reined in spending on discretionary goods.

The strong performance at off-price and discount retailers stands in contrast to those at department store chains and many fashion and footwear retailers.

In calls with Wall Street analysts this week, retail executives also flagged rising credit card delinquencies and higher rates of retail theft, ominous signs that consumers could be more strapped for cash.

Jeff Gennette, the chief executive of Macy’s, the largest department store in the United States, said shoppers had “more aggressively pulled back” on spending in the discretionary categories, resulting in an overall decline in sales last quarter. Half of Macy’s shoppers make $75,000 or less.

“They are not converting as easily and becoming more intentional on the allocation of their disposable income,” he said.

“Probably the most important thing people are spending money on is general merchandise,” said Max Levchin, the chief executive of Affirm, which extends credit to shoppers at checkout via a so-called buy-now, pay-later model. “People are looking for more value for less money, or simpler functionality and lower price,” he said. The company reported an 18 percent rise in active customers from a year earlier.

The finance chiefs of Macy’s, Kohl’s and Nordstrom told analysts that delinquencies on the department stores’ credit cards had risen. In Macy’s case, the increase in nonpayments last quarter was “faster than expected.”

“When people are not paying their credit card bills, that suggests a really stretched consumer,” Ms. Stichter of BTIG said.

And that means consumers are being more selective about where they shop and what they buy.

“You’re going to see brands that are winners and losers,” Fran Horowitz, the chief executive of Abercrombie & Fitch, said in an interview. The fashion retailer reported a jump in sales of more than 10 percent last quarter, as it was able to “chase” the new styles that got more shoppers through the doors, Ms. Horowitz said.

By contrast, on the same day Foot Locker reported a sales decline of nearly 10 percent for the quarter, it also cut its forecast for 2023 earnings for the second time this year, citing “ongoing consumer softness.”

The back-to-school shopping season now underway is crucial for retailers, a harbinger of whether there will be strong sales for the rest of the year.

And a new dynamic will soon come into play. In October, student loan payments will resume for about 44 million Americans, after a pandemic relief measure put them on hold in March 2020. Retail executives have warned that the payment resumption could further squeeze their shoppers’ budgets.

Halloween, which is just weeks after repayments resume, will also be a barometer for people’s willingness to spend on discretionary items like costumes and candy, said Nikki Baird, vice president of strategy at Aptos, a technology company that works with retailers like Crocs, L.L. Bean and New Balance.

She said that the repayments will most affect the age group that typically spends on Halloween. “I think that will really tell us what does this mean for the holiday season,” Ms. Baird said. “If Halloween is a bust, then I think we have to really start looking at whether consumers are going to go big for Christmas, because I think it says they won’t.”

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