Retailers Stumble Adjusting to More Selective Shoppers

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This hasn’t been the year retailers planned for.

After two years of navigating the pandemic — which brought record online sales and shoppers willing to buy all manners of items, to the point that the global supply chain became strained — executives knew a new normal would take shape.

Sales might slow, the thinking went, but people would still want TVs, fashionable dresses and throw pillows. So, with supply chain issues in mind, companies stocked up. But this spring it became clear that those items weren’t selling quickly enough. As people watched the prices of food and gas rise, their spending became more selective, leaving retailers with shelves of inventory they couldn’t get rid of.

The magnitude of the miscalculation was crystallized this week in a batch of quarterly earnings from major retailers like Walmart and Target, which showed a mix of declining sales of discretionary goods and lower profits. A number revised their guidance, lowering expectations for both sales and profits for the rest of the year. A glut of inventory weighed on companies’ balance sheets: Inventory at Walmart rose 25 percent from this time last year. At Target, it increased 36 percent. And Kohl’s said inventory was up 48 percent.

“Since our last earnings call in May, a weakening environment, high inflation and dampened consumer spending are having broad implications across much of retail, especially in discretionary categories like apparel,” Michelle Gass, the chief executive of Kohl’s, said on a call with analysts. “Given our penetration in these categories, this is disproportionately impacting Kohl’s.”

Taken together, the results show that the robust sales retailers grew accustomed to during the course of the pandemic have ceased — and the consumer landscape that awaits may be more austere than what they prepared for. (There were exceptions. Home Depot, for instance, said sales were still strong, driven by home improvement projects.) On earnings calls, executives said lower- to middle-income consumers were the most hesitant to spend. Stores are responding by pushing more discounts and highlighting private-label brand to shoppers, and, in some cases, canceling billions of dollars’ worth of orders with vendors. It remains to be seen which strategies will be most effective.

Inflation F.A.Q.

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Inflation F.A.Q.

What is inflation? Inflation is a loss of purchasing power over time, meaning your dollar will not go as far tomorrow as it did today. It is typically expressed as the annual change in prices for everyday goods and services such as food, furniture, apparel, transportation and toys.

Inflation F.A.Q.

What causes inflation? It can be the result of rising consumer demand. But inflation can also rise and fall based on developments that have little to do with economic conditions, such as limited oil production and supply chain problems.

Inflation F.A.Q.

Is inflation bad? It depends on the circumstances. Fast price increases spell trouble, but moderate price gains can lead to higher wages and job growth.

Inflation F.A.Q.

Can inflation affect the stock market? Rapid inflation typically spells trouble for stocks. Financial assets in general have historically fared badly during inflation booms, while tangible assets like houses have held their value better.

“The last two years was great for retailers because consumers were buying everything they had to offer,” Liza Amlani, founder of Retail Strategy Group, which works with brands on their merchandising and planning strategies. “They just can’t do that anymore. You have to understand what the consumer wants more now than ever.”

In July, U.S. retail sales were virtually unchanged, according to data from the Commerce Department released Wednesday. Excluding the sales of gas and cars, retail sales actually increased 0.7 percent. But 85 percent of U.S. consumers said that inflation is altering the way they shop, according to a survey released this week from Morning Consult.

Most retailers are hoping this pullback period is only temporary. In the meantime, companies are trying to signal to customers that it’s worth doing what spending they do in their stores. Kohl’s, for instance, said that its private-label brands outperformed the national ones it carries last quarter, and that shoppers gravitated toward buying more basic apparel that could be worn with many different outfits.

Retailers are also turning to the familiar strategy of discounting merchandise to entice shoppers to open their wallets. It’s one they didn’t have to deploy for most of the pandemic, when people showed they were willing to pay full price for a wide range of items. Target, Walmart and Ross Stores all said they have marked down goods in recent weeks. In turn, retailers like BJ’s Wholesale Club — even if they were content with their balance sheets — said they lowered prices on some categories in order to stay competitive. Robert Eddy, chief executive at BJ’s Wholesale Club, even said that the company was willing to “alter the scope and the depth of those promotions” for the holiday season.

The strategy of discounting might not actually get to the root cause, analysts say.

“There is a point at which lower prices don’t trigger incremental demand because the consumers already have it,” said Simeon Siegel, a managing director at BMO Capital Markets. “It’s not an indication that the company is dead. It’s not an indication that they’re never going to buy it again. They just need the time lag.”

Retailers need to realize that consumers are thinking differently, Mr. Siegel said. Some big-ticket purchases — like an exercise bike, living room couch or patio grill — will happen just once. In other cases, the amount of time between purchasing and replenishing will be longer. A person might now buy a candle every few months, compared to doing it every month in the early stages of the pandemic when they were home more often. And more people are choosing to spend their money on things like air travel and movie tickets this summer compared to last.

With all of these variables, lowering prices might not trigger the demand a retailer wants, Mr. Siegel said. It might simply just cut into a company’s profits.

For the stores that did see sales growth, like the big-box retailers Walmart and Target, most of that volume was attributed to higher food prices. Groceries have narrower margins than, say, a retailer’s private-label dress brand, and the shift in sales from one category to another affects the company’s overall profitability.

Understand Inflation and How It Affects You

Along with pricing, retailers need to figure out how to deal with their inventory issues, especially with the all-important holiday season just a few months away.

“Getting through the inventory levels allows them to have a cleaner store, a cleaner supply chain,” said Bobby Griffin, equity research analyst at Raymond James. “They won’t be able to predict it perfectly, but getting through excess inventory will give them more flexibility to try to adapt to what the holiday is throwing at them.”

For all the challenges, some retailers saw a brighter path ahead. While inventory at TJX, the owner of the T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s chains, was up 39 percent for the quarter, the company said it was comfortable at that level because they had want shoppers actually wanted.

“They’re looking for an exciting treasure hunt, an entertaining shopping experience in stores,” Ernie Herrman, TJX’s chief executive, said in a call with analysts, “and along with that value equation, we continue to provide those two things.”

Isabella Simonetti contributed reporting.

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