Saturday, February 9, 2008

On the Retail Side – The Slowest January Since They Started Keeping Records in 1970

The consumer is really beginning to put the brakes on spending making January the slowest January in basically 40 years. In addition the consumer is using gift cards for essentials and not discretionary purchases. People were wondering when the consumer would finally stop spending. Well, it may be here and now. Text in bold is my emphasis. From the Chicago Times:

Here's a sign of how shaky the economy has become: Wal-Mart says its shoppers are redeeming their holiday gift cards for basic items -- pasta sauce, diapers, laundry detergent -- instead of iPods or DVDs.

On Thursday, the nation's retailers turned in their worst January in almost four decades as high gas and food prices, a slumping housing market, tighter credit and a tougher job market pushed consumers to the edge.

Sales at 43 retailers surveyed by the UBS-International Council of Shopping Centers rose just 0.5 percent in January, well below the original 1.5 percent forecast.

The results -- based on sales at stores open at least a year -- followed an anemic 0.7 percent pace in December and were below the 2.1 percent gain for all of last year.

"Gift cards are being used as a secondary way to save," said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of the New York-based retail consulting firm Strategic Resource Group.

Even at department stores, he said, consumers are using gift cards to buy basic apparel such as socks and lingerie.

The assessment by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, that gift card redemptions were below expectations and people were buying only necessities shook up industry observers. Retailers record gift-card revenue only as cards are redeemed.

"It shows you the level of worry. Even with free money in your hand, (consumers) aren't willing to spend on anything more than necessities," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at International Council of Shopping Centers.

Niemira said January's retail sales performance was the weakest for that month since at least 1970, when comparable records started.

Shoppers appear to be looking at gift cards not as "free money" but rather as their "own personal cash," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, citing his recent surveys with consumers.

They're also holding on to the gift cards longer this year than last year, he said -- 15 percent of the 1,000 consumers his group interviewed said they redeemed their gift cards in December, compared with 33 percent who did so last year.

Analysts also say that while the government's proposed economic stimulus package, which would send rebate checks to more than 100 million Americans, could help re-ignite spending, the lift would be only temporary.

Discount retailers have held up better as higher-income shoppers shift their spending to less expensive stores. But their traditional customers are cutting back as well. Target Corp. reported a 1.1 percent decline in same-store sales in January, worse than the 0.6 percent decline analysts expected.

Wal-Mart reported a 0.5 percent gain in same-store sales, far below the 2.0 percent increase expected. The company said it continues to do well with basics like groceries but home furnishings remain weak.

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