Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Retail Spending and the Consumer

I had lunch recently with a friend in a fashionable urban restaurant. When the conversation came around to the economy he said, just look around. Everywhere I go restaurants and retail shops are crowded with people eager to spend. From Fifth Avenue to Rodeo Drive. From San Francisco to Miami Beach, restaurants are crowded and consumers are spending, spending, spending.

The problem with this image, of course, is consumer behavior in these tony high end locations tells us very little about the overall health of the American consumer. How little, may be just 1%. 

For the month of January, total retail sales grew by 0.2% over the prior month. These weak results were at least partially due to falling gas prices - a good thing for consumers. Retail sales ex-auto, gasoline, building materials and food services (i.e., core retail sales) were up 0.6%. While not stellar, the January report followed an outright decline in core retail sales of 0.3% in December. Not great, but certainly not recessionary. Bear in mind also that retail sales figures are not adjusted for inflation. So 2% sales growth in an economy with 2% inflation, would mean essentially flat unit sales. 

Against this backdrop, consider that four states are already officially in a downturn, as reported by Bloomberg News: Alaska, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming. Likewise, other states are threatened, as well, including Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma, according to Moody’s Investors Service. And of course there is Texas, which is also struggling with plunging oil prices, layoffs and reduced consumer spending.

So what's going on? Fortunately, the Commerce Department, in its monthly report of consumer spending, gives us a broader view of how people are spending, or not spending. If we drill down into the January Retail Sales Report, here's what we find beneath the headlines. On a year over year basis, food and beverage store sales were up just 1% (the CPI in January on a year over year basis was up 1.4% so sales grew by an amount less than inflation). But sales at bars and restaurants were up a solid 5.4%, indicating a preference for meals out to those at home for many consumers. Yet, furniture and home furnishings grew by just 1.4% (about the rate of inflation) while clothing stores were flat (no increase in sales, before inflation). And department store sales fell 4.5%, while electronics stores were off 5.4%.

So while the anecdotal evidence of a healthy consumer eating out more often and buying lavish clothes may be what some of us see, others see a far more bleak picture of retail spending, lending yet further support to the case for an impending recession.