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Consumers tighten spending habits ahead of holiday shopping season


Consumers are in a cautious mood heading into the holiday shopping season, moderating their spending in the face of higher prices and costlier credit, signaling a likely downshift in the engine of the U.S. economy.

Major retailers say their customers over the last three months have pulled back from high-ticket purchases, focused on essentials and held out for deals — a shift that industry executives and observers expect to persist into the busiest shopping period of the year.

“Sales have been somewhat uneven, and this gives us reason to think slightly more cautiously about the consumer versus 90 days ago,” Walmart chief financial officer John David Rainey told analysts Thursday on a call to discuss the retailer’s third-quarter earnings.

The consumer restraint showed up across the economy in October, as retail sales fell by 0.1 percent from the previous month, the first such decline in six months, according to the Commerce Department. Those who were spending increasingly embraced alternative payment methods, with “buy now, pay later” purchases climbing 6 percent over the same period last year, a report by Adobe Analytics found.

Customers facing squeezed budgets are subjecting their purchases to tougher scrutiny and asking themselves: “Is this really going to add value to my life?” Target’s chief growth officer, Christina Hennington, said on an earnings call this week.

Other top retail executives expect more of the same: Macy’s Chief Financial Officer Adrian Mitchell warned the company expects “the consumer to continue to be challenged”; Gap Chief Financial Officer Katrina O’Connell said the retailer is trying “really just trying to remain prudent about the consumer”; Williams-Sonoma executives noted the company has been dealing with “ongoing consumer hesitancy” even though the company remains optimistic for the holiday season.

The National Retail Federation, for its part, projects holiday shoppers will step up their spending over last year but at a slower pace than in recent years. The group forecasts retail sales will increase 3 to 4 percent in November and December — a more modest bump than the 5.4 percent hike they recorded last year — as Americans reckon with new economic uncertainty.

“People feel less secure about spending when they feel less confident in their jobs,” said Jack Kleinhenz, the retail group’s chief economist, pointing to a recent uptick in the unemployment rate despite what remains a historically strong job market. “The ability to spend is there, now the question is the willingness.”

Accordingly, businesses are preparing for a leaner season, with listings for seasonal job openings hitting their lowest level in a decade, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a firm that tracks labor trends.

Economists see good reason for shoppers to be wary, as both consumers and the economy itself appear to be at inflection points.

Two years of red-hot inflation that sent prices soaring to 40-year highs and stretched household budgets finally looks to be cooling. But to tame the phenomenon, the Federal Reserve hiked interest rates to their highest level in 22 years, sending borrowing costs skyrocketing.

Consumers initially relied on pandemic-era emergency payments and debt forgiveness programs to patch their personal finances as prices rose. After spending down more than $2 trillion in savings since the pandemic, they have turned to credit cards and other borrowing in recent months — a development now worrying some economists.

Credit card debt has piled up at a historically fast clip — consumers added $154 billion to their balances in the last quarter, the biggest leap over the previous year on record, according to the New York Federal Reserve. That debt has grown sharply more expensive as interest rates have climbed, with the average credit card interest rate rising from 16.3 percent two years ago to a record-high 20.7 percent, according to Bankrate.com.

Borrowers, meanwhile, are falling further behind on making payments. Nearly 8 percent of total credit card debt is at least 30 days past due, the highest such figure since the Great Recession.

Moody’s Analytics economist Justin Begley called the jump in credit card balances “concerning,” while noting that “the American household remains on pretty good financial footing generally speaking.”

The delinquency rate should peak over the next year, as long as wage gains continue to outpace price increases and interest rates come down, allowing some borrowers to refinance their debt, Begley added.

For now, though, Americans’ economic outlook remains dour. Consumer sentiment this month slid to its lowest level since May, according to the University of Michigan. Shoppers are focused on prices of necessities such as gas and food, rather than the slower pace of increases, and are worrying about high interest rates and the effects of wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

Other surveys back up those findings, with 81 percent of registered voters rating the economy as either “fair” or “poor” and only 19 percent calling it “good” or “excellent” in a recent poll by the New York Times and Siena College.

Newly cautious consumers will respond by slowing down their spending, though not halting it altogether, said Oxford Economics senior economist Bob Schwartz.

“People like to vent in surveys, but it’s not necessarily how they behave,” Schwartz said. “I believe in not watching what people say but what they do.”

Jaclyn Peiser contributed to this report.



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