Consumer spending shifts toward services and restaurants.


For several years, a consumer spending pattern has emerged that shows a preference for online shopping — especially using mobile devices — holding off on major purchases until later in the year, and when purchases are made, consumers tend to spend on experiences.

This season is shaping up to be the same, and at least one economist is expecting middle-market retailers to suffer as a result.

Amid a 6.4 percent decline in retail sales at U.S. department stores in September, economists and analysts are projecting holiday sales to rise between 3 and 4 percent this season. In a report this morning, Deborah Weinswig, managing director at Fung Global Retail & Technology, noted that total retail sales excluding autos increased by 0.5 percent on a month-over-month basis for September, which was ahead of what economists were forecasting.

“In our view, a solid job market, lower gas prices and improving wages all continue to support consumer spending,” Weinswig noted. “The retail sales rebound from August’s decline — along with positive economic indicators — suggests that consumers are set to support stronger second-half economic growth.” The gains, however, will not be across the board.

In a separate report from RSM U.S. LLP, Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at the firm, said he “expects a solid overall gain in holiday retail sales this year, as U.S. households are on much firmer footing than at any time since 2007 before the Great Recession.” But the economist quickly added that “middle-market retailers might feel a disconnect from this holiday’s spending growth as consumer purchases shift to experiential, travel and services spending, as well as online.”

That said, Brusuelas sees a consumer spending environment that is better positioned this year. “Without a doubt, U.S. households are on much firmer footing than at any time since 2007, just before the onset of the two-year Great Recession,” he said. “Incomes increased more than 5 percent last year and that’s been followed by another year of solid growth in job gains, wages and salaries. While retail sales on a year-ago basis likely peaked in June at 6 percent, the condition of the household over the past three years has improved to the point that fears of a dour holiday spending season should be put to rest.”

As a result, Brusuelas has holiday sales pegged to show a 3.4 percent gain with online sales growing 13 percent.

“While that overall increase is indeed a positive development, it’s the composition of spending to keep an eye on,” the economist added. “This year that composition will likely feature a greater shift toward experiential, travel and services spending, as well as a steady increase toward online purchases, and that may present a challenge for middle-market retailers.”

And for retailers and brands serving the higher-income set, Brusuelas said, “data shows the upper-two quintiles of income earners, who disproportionately benefited from the early gains in the [economic] expansion, are for the first time since the previous business cycle tapping home equity lines of credit to fund overall outlays.”

“This, in turn, should boost demand for luxury products, travel and accommodations,” he added.

Meanwhile, in a separate report from Telsey Advisory Group, the omnichannel experience’s fraternal twins BOPUS (buy online, pick up in store) and BORIS (buy online, return in store) is expected to be more prominent while also triggering changes in the retail workforce.

The Telsey analysts noted efforts of retailers to reposition themselves in the current market involves improving wages for workers (with Walmart leading the way), which is converging with changes in technology and consumer shopping behavior.

“Essentially, the goal is to put in place programs that are a win for employees, a win for customers and a win for the company and shareholders,” the analysts said. “This focus on reengineering business models, with the investment and adoption of technology, ultimately may lead to delivering the same level of service with fewer people.”

The Telsey researchers said the “balancing act of increasing wages and retooling the operating model requires” the need to see total revenues grow at a faster rate to cover higher expenses while also adjusting “the operating model to deliver the same product and service with less labor.”

“Perhaps, this will lead to more self-service checkout in stores and tablet ordering in restaurants,” the analysts noted. “And, this upcoming holiday season, we expect to see greater penetration and marketing of BOPUS (buy online, pick up in store) and BORIS (buy online, return in store).”

The Telsey analysts said improvements gained from technology may “accelerate the change in the delivery of goods and services. However, these advances may require labor adjustments that result in fewer employees making more money.”

Subsequently, as employees see higher wages, “they spend more, but the fact that there may be fewer workers may lead to a zero-sum gain in the future. Newness, experience, and service likely will be required to drive sales in the future.”

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