Stalled consumer spending in 2016 gives retailers more pain
NEW YORK — Shoppers at Randal Weeks' home decor have started being more tentative about buying the pillows, furniture and framed prints they admire in the store. They even shy away from small, inexpensive items like candles.
"We are seeing much less impulse buying and hearing more 'I need to go home and think about it,'" says Weeks, owner of Gray Living, located in the Dallas suburb of McKinney, Texas.
Customers' reluctance to spend has sent Weeks' sales down 12 percent so far this year from the same period of 2015. The problem goes beyond the Dallas area — Weeks also has a wholesale business, supplying merchandise to other retailers around the country, and they report their customers are hesitant too.
The Commerce Department's monthly report on consumer spending shows the trend: Spending crept up just 0.1 percent in December, January and February, falling from an average monthly increase of nearly 0.4 percent the preceding nine months. Retailers of all sizes are feeling the impact — for example, Gap Inc. said a key measure of its sales fell 2 percent in February. But small and independent retailers that don't have the financial cushions the big players do are more vulnerable when consumers get cautions and revenue falls.
Shoppers feel uncertain because of a stock market that fell more than 10 percent in six weeks and the recent terror attacks in Europe, says Bob Phibbs, CEO of The Retail Doctor, a consulting company based in Coxsackie, New York. And Gray Living's Weeks says a few of his customers have said they're uneasy because of the presidential election; they don't have a sense of how it will turn out. The pace of consumer spending so far this year is sharply lower than the 3.4 percent for all of the last presidential election year, 2012, as well as the election years before the recession, when spending rose about 6 percent or more.
But shopping doesn't have the appeal for many people that it did before the recession, especially since consumers have become more conservative about running up credit card bills, Phibbs says.
"Retailers love to think there's going to be this great catch-up moment, when we're all going to go back," Phibbs says. "The reality is, this is the new normal."
Erin Sandler feels the impact of consumers' caution. Her clothing and gift shop, Quinstance, had a strong holiday season, but business slumped when fewer shoppers came to the store starting in January. A spring preview event in late March did bring more customers in and sales picked up, but business fell back again once the event was over.
"The trouble is getting people through the door," says Sandler, whose store is in a recently-opened shopping center in Burlington, Massachusetts. "You have to entice them with events and a reason to be there,"
She's putting together a calendar of events tied to holidays and other occasions. So is the shopping center's operator. But the past few months have made Sandler anxious.
"I really have no idea what to expect," she says.
Customers have been spending less so far this year at Wholesale Event Solutions, sending revenue down between 5 percent and 10 percent at the online retailer of party decor. They're buying fewer table centerpieces, lighting and table linens per order, and opting for more simple designs, owner Kim Hawkins says.
"It seems like they're looking for cheaper things that will fit into their budget," says Hawkins, whose company is located in Watkinsville, Georgia. For example, they might buy a centerpiece made out of candle holders rather than ostrich feathers, or buy vases that have basic rather than fancy shapes.
Wholesale Event Solutions sells a lot of wedding supplies, and its busy season starts in March. Hawkins was surprised by the slowdown, but she's focusing more of her marketing on wholesale customers like corporations and non-profit groups that place larger orders.
Retailers that cater to the price-conscious also report a change in shopper behavior. At Revolve, a chain of five consignment boutiques in the Boston area, owner Lisa Costagno is seeing more customers coming in search of brand-name and designer clothes discounted 50 percent to 60 percent. Still, they're more thoughtful than they used to be before heading for the cash register.
"In the past, they'd say, 'I'll take this and I'll take this and just throw it on the pile," she says.
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