Retailers brace for tougher times and more frugal customers in 2023

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A shopper goes through shirts in the kids section at Old Navy in Denver, Colorado.
Brent Lewis | Denver Post | Getty Images

January is typically an overlooked month for retailers.

Shoppers make returns and exchanges. They come to stores with gift cards in hand. And they may spring for workout clothes or other items to follow through on New Year’s resolutions.

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But this year, January carries higher stakes. The next few weeks, which close out many retailers’ fiscal year, could help determine whether the holiday quarter is a win or a bust. It’s an important time for helping stores clear out excess inventory, too. January could also set the tone for 2023 — when some economists and retail industry watchers anticipate the U.S. will tip into a recession.

So far, early holiday results have been better than some economists and retailers feared. Sales from Nov. 1 to Dec. 24 rose 7.6%, according to data from MasterCard SpendingPulse, which measures in-store and online retail sales across all forms of payment. The figure includes restaurants and is not adjusted for inflation, which rose 7.1% year over year in November.

Yet there are signs that shoppers may be running out of gas. Credit card balances have ticked up. Personal saving rates have fallen. And sales of big-ticket items like jewelry and electronics have weakened.

Plus, Americans’ spending spree during the earlier years of the pandemic, fueled by stimulus money, boredom and socked-away savings, have made for tough comparisons.

A pivotal January

Retailers enter 2023 reckoning with the fact that store traffic already lagged during peak weeks of the holiday season.

Across six retailers — Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Nordstrom, Kohl’s and Macy’s — foot traffic dropped by an average of 3.22% year over year for the weeks from Black Friday through the week of Christmas, according to data from Placer.ai, an analytics firm that uses anonymized data from mobile devices to estimate overall visits to locations. It also declined by nearly 5% when compared to pre-pandemic patterns.

Now retailers are more on edge.

“It seems like a lot of the brands are anticipating a bigger thud in January,” said Stacey Widlitz, president of SW Retail Advisors, a consulting firm.

She has noticed more retailers are dangling gift cards to drum up sales. For instance, Urban Outfitters-owned retail chain Anthropologie on Friday offered $50 toward a future purchase for online shoppers who spend $200 or more. But that bonus cash must be used by Jan. 31, when the company’s quarter ends.

Widlitz said those offers are focused on nudging shoppers to make purchases during a time when there’s often a post-holiday lull. It is also retailers’ last chance to sell through excess inventory and start the new fiscal year in a cleaner position.

“It just looks like they’re trying to push people to get into stores after the new year,” she said.

But for some, a more budget-sensitive consumer could be an opportunity.

On an earnings call last month, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said he anticipates a boost in sales as consumers feel stretched from holiday spending. Like many other retailers, Walmart’s holiday quarter includes January.

“Sometimes these quarters work out where the very end of December and January end up being stronger when people are particularly price sensitive,” he said. “So that’s kind of what I’m expecting.”

Already, the discounter has attracted wealthier shoppers with its lower-priced groceries and household staples. For the past two quarters, about 75% of its market share gains in food came from households that make more than $100,000 a year.

Yet like competitors Target and Costco, it has had a harder time selling discretionary merchandise that tends to drive higher profits than selling milk or paper towels.

What will the new year bring?

Economists are closely watching consumer indicators as the year begins.

On the positive side, said Michael Zdinak, an economist at S&P Global Market Intelligence, unemployment is low and the jobs market is still very tight. There are signs that inflation has cooled, with prices rising less than expected in November, the most recent month of available federal data.

On the other hand, he said food prices are still high, retail demand is weakening and savings aren’t looking as robust.

Personal saving rates have declined significantly. The percentage of disposable income that people save was 2.4% in November, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. That’s down from an average of 6.3% pre-pandemic, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence, which crunched the numbers from 1991 to 2019.

Zdinak said that low rate is unsustainable, especially as consumers have been spending money they put in their savings accounts during the earlier months and years of the pandemic.

Economists at the market data firm anticipate a recession to begin in the first quarter of 2023 and to last two quarters.

Zdinak said the downturn will be fueled by slashed orders and less manufacturing as many retailers clear through unwanted inventory after consumer preferences changed abruptly in 2022.

Then there are headwinds for consumers. Reality may soon hit families who have blown the budget on gifts or holiday travel, said Widlitz of SW Retail Advisors.

“Everyone gets through the holidays in denial and Feb. 1, when you get your [credit card] statement, or Jan. 15, whenever it comes, it’s like, ‘Oh!'” she said.

Caitlyn Freda contributed to this report.

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