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4 Jan

What to Watch: Caught within the Middle

The squeeze is getting tighter.

For middle-income and working-class families — those inordinately impacted by inflation, higher costs on essentials like food and heating, and rising rates of interest — money for discretionaries similar to apparel and accessories is drying up. And that’s going to make 2023 a tougher yr than 2022 for a lot of retailers. Middle-income Americans are shopping cautiously and “strategically” anticipating a difficult financial road ahead.

Feeling essentially the most pressure will probably be mainstream shops similar to J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Kohl’s, Von Maur, Belk and Dillard’s, and fashion specialty chains similar to Gap, Old Navy and H&M, They’re prone to lose those shoppers trading right down to dollar and discount stores and mass chains like Walmart, Costco, Primark, TJMaxx and Goal, which have low prices and robust value perceptions. Some apparel chains, including Lululemon, Athleta, Zara and Aerie, are expected to proceed to perform, while home furnishings and electronics businesses are seen remaining soft. There are also signs that luxury sales, after a two-year boom, are slowing.

For the midtier retailers, the important thing to getting through 2023 rests in having finessed strategies that elevate their appeal and their value propositions. Private label offerings must offer higher quality fabrics, greater style and distinction, at sharp prices that also yield decent margins.

“Individuals are more sensitive about what they’re paying they usually’re shopping around,” observed R.J. Hottovy, head of analytical research at Placer.ai, which provides location analytics and counts traffic to assist retailers understand trends and the effectiveness of promotions. Licensing deals tying in to celebrities, sports figures and popular culture; for newness and exclusivity; additional payment options, and beefed-up loyalty programs needs to be a part of the agenda as well.

Michelle Gass, the previous chief executive officer of Kohl’s Corp. who joined Levi’s as president on Monday, during her presentation on the WWD Apparel and Retail CEO Summit last October observed the plain — that middle-income shoppers are pulling back on discretionary spending, though with those on the $100,000 or higher income level, “there was growth there. Unfortunately, not enough growth to make up for the others.”

“That being said, we saw customers responding to value and our private label brands,” Gass added. “We’ve taken that learning to be certain it may influence the rest of 2022 and definitely into next yr. Sephora at Kohl’s has seemed quite resilient to the economic pressure.” 

Sephora is a component of an “entire Kohl’s transformation” involving “owning” the energetic and casual lifestyle with such brands as Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, Adidas and Under Armour. “That, coupled with high-value private brands, which we’ve done quite a lot of work on within the last couple years, that’s really powerful as we take into consideration competing,” Gass said. In other innovations, Kohl’s is experimenting with a marketplace business model for kohls.com, operates a media network, and has a method to open 100 smaller format stores.

Licensing deals are necessary for midtier stores. Here, J.C. Penney’s Marilyn Monroe spring 2022 capsule line.

At Penney’s, the mission is “to rejoice and serve America’s diverse working families,” Marc Rosen, the retailer’s CEO, recently told WWD. “They deserve a retail experience where they don’t need to make the trade-offs between style and value and experience and that’s what we will offer. We’re uniquely positioned with the products and the brands that we now have,” he said, citing Worthington, the long-standing private brand for ladies’s for the office and the after hours, and Mutual Weave, the boys’s denim lifestyle private brand launched in early 2022. He said the plan involves intensifying marketing around inclusivity and serving America’s diverse working-class families, and rolling out latest beauty departments at a rate of roughly 75 a month, offering mass, prestige and emerging founder-led brands, which can replace the Sephora departments that previously were there before the wonder retailer switched to Kohl’s.

“You’ll see us lean in heavily and make investments within the areas that matter and that is basically digital, supply chain and technology,” said Rosen. “There may be a big amount of investment we now have to make to construct that digital experience for the client.”

Penney’s business is a couple of 50-50 split between private and national brands. “The goal is to serve our customer and to construct out the assortment in that good, higher, best tiering,” said Rosen. Authentic Brands Group, the brand development, marketing and entertainment company, is a strategic partner in Penney’s and has been an enormous think about feeding it merchandise, similar to the Juicy Couture and Without end 21 labels.

Industrywide, expectations about 2023 sank in early December when the U.S. government reported an unexpected 0.6 percent drop in retail sales during November from the month prior, sending retail stocks plummeting and compounding angst amongst investors that the Federal Reserve’s rate of interest hikes will drag the economy into recession in 2023, causing a decline in consumer spending. The Fed said it is going to proceed to hike rates through 2023 to peak at 5.1 percent, from over 4 percent currently.

“For the lower-income group we’re in a recession and in 2023 we’re going to be for the upper-income group too,” predicted veteran retail analyst and blogger Walter Loeb.

Added David Silverman, senior director, Fitch Rankings, “We expect 2023 retail volumes to say no modestly, given a confluence of inauspicious comparisons, shifts in spend to services, and softening tailwinds in savings and employment. Recent moderation appears largely to some pulled-forward demand in 2020-2021 and consumers refocusing budgets toward services, including travel and other experiences. The consequences of above-average inflation on overall spending is somewhat unclear, even though it appears to be playing a job in decision making for lower-income consumers.”

In keeping with Silverman, November retail sales showed “a still-resilient consumer, although some signs of softening are emerging after several years of strong retail gains. With weaker results centered around categories like consumer electronics, home furnishings and apparel and strength in bars/restaurants, we consider results reveal some retail buying fatigue and budget shifts to consumer services. Consumer health stays generally robust, although the mix of recent home and equity price declines and high inflation has likely moderated sentiment somewhat from historically high levels.”

Silverman also said that he expected the vacation season’s “noisy promotional environment” to proceed into early 2023 as retailers create “calls to motion for consumers.”

While there isn’t any official definition of middle income, it’s often perceived as those with a family income of around $70,000 to $75,000 on average. The actual median household income within the U.S. was $70,784 in 2021, in response to government statistics.

“The important thing point is that folks within the lower two income quintiles, the underside 50 percent of the population, are all struggling and redirecting spending to deal with essentials and squeezing discretionary spending,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners.

“Unless things dramatically change, assuming having inflation a minimum of through the top of 2023 and better rates of interest here through the top of 2023, we assume there will probably be nominal retail sales growth of 5 to five.5 percent this yr, barely above the 20-year average. But this isn’t going to be great yr, a bit of bit above average, and on an actual cost basis flat or barely down,” said Johnson.

Regarding a recession within the U.S., Johnson said, “We don’t think it’s a certainty by any means. If it does occur, it is going to be mild, with a shallow slowdown or flat to 1.5 percent GDP growth, and that isn’t a recession but may feel like a recession, when we now have inflation at 7 or 8 percent. There remains to be job growth, not as much. Individuals are still having fun with modest wage growth, but there may be clearly some slowdown in savings.”

On the positive side for middle-income families is that on Recent Yr’s Day, 23 states and Washington D.C. increased their minimum wages, in response to the Economic Policy Institute. An estimated 8.4 million employees across the country will probably be putting a complete of greater than $5 billion in more money into their pockets, the EPI reported. “The state with the stingiest increase is Michigan with a 23-cent raise bringing the whole to $10.10 an hour, while the largest hike of $1.50 an hour is in Nebraska, raising the speed to $10.50 an hour.”

Also helping Americans on a budget are gas prices which have significantly dropped from over $5 in June 2022 to only over $3 currently, though there is theory that gas prices could jump back as much as around $4 later this yr.

“The impact of gas prices will probably be a net positive for retailers. However, home energy costs are through the roof. People may have much higher winter heating bills, and inflation, while cooling, remains to be mid- to high-single digits, and on quite a lot of stuff that could be very visible, particularly groceries,” said Johnson.

“Clearly, consumers are tapping the brakes on spending, but they’re still spending, with households within the lower two income quintiles focusing their purchases on food, energy and household essentials.  But while upper-income consumers haven’t reduced their spending — whether on discretionary or essential goods or on services — they’re making ‘considered’ purchases.”

In keeping with the Conference Board, “Uncertainty and volatility will probably be the dominant themes of 2023. While a world recession remains to be not the Conference Board base case, regional recessions across mature and emerging and developing economies are almost certain.

“Lingering effects of the pandemic, the continuing war in Ukraine, elevated inflation, tightening monetary policies, and weak growth will characterize the economic outlook globally and for individual economies. Risks remain tilted to the downside and grey swans are manifold.

“In 2024, the worldwide economy will likely experience a modest revival as pandemic recoveries needs to be complete and central banks stop mountain climbing and even cut rates after having tamed inflation,” the Conference Board added. “Nevertheless, growth rates in 2024 and beyond are prone to be below the pre-pandemic trend.”

Loeb believes that after weeks and weeks of clearing bloated inventories, “I believe stores won’t be left with quite a lot of merchandise. That said, we’re still going to have markdowns” heading into the brand new yr. The Fed’s rate increases, Loeb said, “will decelerate sales more this yr.”

Jack Kleinhenz, the chief economist for the National Retail Federation, had a more positive outlook, stating, “By way of looking forward, I feel that the buyer has kept the U.S. economy afloat and can proceed to. Should you are feeling good about your job you’ll be ok with spending though it’s possible you’ll not have quite a bit to spend. The less affluent will proceed spending but not as significantly” as in 2022.

Citing www.tracktherecovery.org, which mixes anonymized data from private corporations to offer a real-time picture of economic indicators, Kleinhenz said, “Growth in spending on the low-income level as of Dec. 4, 2022, was up 18.8 percent because the pandemic, while total spending isn’t growing as fast as low income, and spending by the high-income cohort isn’t growing as fast…It’s the upper end of the income spectrum seeing job security concerns. Take a look at the tech layoffs just announced. That to me is a sign of some softening in spending along that line.” Kleinhenz also said the volatile stock market “has taken an enormous hit on people’s funds,” reducing some spending by high-income consumers.

“As we predict in regards to the outlook, consumer spending remains to be growing, not stopping. Where there may be job security, people still have the wherewithal. The issue for quite a lot of individuals who don’t own their homes is that rents have skyrocketed, putting quite a lot of pressure on budgets.” As well as, “inflation hits hardest those that have the least. It’s really like a tax,” said Kleinhenz.

“I’m not an economist, but all indications are that low-mid-income consumer spending has been artificially propped up by COVID[-19] savings and barely higher wages, but these funds are prone to run out soon, accelerated by inflation and better rates of interest,” said Brent Hollowell, chief marketing officer at Volumental, which provides in-store 3D foot scanning to recommend higher fitting shoes.  

“I’ve lived through several recessionary periods as a marketer at brands like Foot Locker, Adidas and others. One consistent commentary is that folks proceed to want and need footwear, apparel and other core accessories but they will probably be shopping less often and typically spending less per visit.”

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