Cost-conscious consumers trim spending on everything but appliances, cars

Bloomberg NewsAugust 26, 2013 

— Shannon Burke is typical of many American shoppers these days. She’s pouring money into her home and cutting back on everything else.

“If we don’t need it, we don’t buy it,” said Burke, 33, of Abington, Mass., whose two kids are mostly making do with hand-me-downs. “The money can be spent on our home. The more valuable our home is, the better it is for us in the long run.”

That’s great news for companies such as Lowe’s and Home Depot. Both reported blowout second quarters as millions of Americans, drawing confidence from a recovering housing market, loaded up on dishwashers, bathtubs and wall tile. It’s not so good for retailers selling clothes and other general merchandise. In recent weeks, chains from Wal-Mart to Nordstrom to Macy’s missed sales estimates and cut forecasts.

Several blamed the results on consumers struggling with higher payroll taxes and an uncertain economy. While those headwinds are weighing on spending, especially for low-income shoppers, many consumers are simply buying elsewhere. Having already updated their wardrobes, they’re eager to replace aging appliances and cars after postponing such purchases for years. Ford and General Motors are benefiting from the best sales of light cars and trucks in the U.S. since 2007.

It’s not as though Americans suddenly have more money, said Poonam Goyal, a Bloomberg Industries analyst. It’s that they’re spending on things they deem a good investment.

“They are more willing to invest in their homes,” she said. When you buy “bigger-ticket items, you have less to spend on things like apparel.”

In the aftermath of the recession, retailers catering to a more well-heeled cohort have prospered because recovering stock markets made their customers feel wealthier. Since then, a broader array of retailers have benefited from an improving economy, rising employment and consumer confidence that has reached the highest level since before the downturn.

Riding the housing wave

This past quarter, retailers posted their worst earnings performance when compared with analysts’ estimates since the end of 2008 as one-third of all chains, including Macy’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods, missed projections, according to researcher Retail Metrics. Amid familiar comments about cautious consumers and payroll taxes, Macy’s and Target said spending on cars and houses had hurt sales.

“While emerging strength in the housing and automotive sectors is a long-term positive, the near-term spending on these big-ticket items is crowding out other spending,” Gregg Steinhafel, Target’s chief executive officer, said in an Aug. 21 conference call with analysts.

With home values rising in her town, Burke decided to stop being a stay-at-home mom and took a job in corporate security in April. That boosted her household income to about $100,000 and since then she and her husband have spent about $4,000 on renovations at a Lowe’s. Their most recent project was stripping wallpaper and painting every wall with an eye toward selling the 1953 three-bedroom house.

Even Best Buy, in the midst of a turnaround attempt, is riding the housing wave. In the second quarter, appliances were one of the few bright spots for the chain. In the U.S., revenue from items like air conditioners and dishwashers rose 14 percent as store-wide sales fell 0.4 percent.

Retailers face challenges

Many appliances bought when the U.S. housing boom began 10 years ago are now reaching the end of their lives, says David MacGregor, an analyst for Longbow Research in Independence, Ohio. Now those are being replaced and account for more than half of sales, he said.

Meanwhile, low interest rates, competitive lease deals and a crop of new models have given Americans an incentive to replace their vehicles, now the oldest ever on U.S. roads.

Consumers’ shift in spending doesn’t explain all the challenges retailers are facing. Wal-Mart has struggled to keep its shelves fully stocked. Macy’s, the second-largest U.S. department-store chain, said it was too slow to discount. J.C. Penney, which reported a second-quarter 12 percent sales decline, is attempting a turnaround after former Chief Executive Officer Ron Johnson alienated core shoppers. Abercrombie & Fitch and other teen retailers didn’t get the fashions right.

Still, retailers are struggling because spending on homes and cars has “crowded out discretionary dollars,” Charles Grom, a retail analyst for Sterne Agee & Leach Inc. in New York, wrote in a note. With “little, if any real wage growth” the spending shift may persist beyond the second quarter.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service