As retail investors carefully eye the progress of store reopenings while gauging consumer sentiment, some economists expect a slow recovery from the impact of COVID-19 on retail sales, which have also been affected by ongoing social justice protests across the U.S.
In her consumer trends report Monday, Dana Telsey, chief research officer at Telsey Advisory Group, said amid the store reopenings, “anticipation is high and everyone, including investors, is searching for data to assess the sustainability of sales and potential for acceleration.”
Tesley said the “path back is expected to include occupancy limitations, the wearing of gloves and masks, reduced hours and visible health and sanitization protocols.” It’s unclear how such safety measure will impede the flow of spending, but, according to multiple consumer studies, safety is a top priority for retailers and consumers alike.
The initial prognosis is somewhat encouraging. “Overall, most nonessential retailers are seeing sales productivity of stores that are reopening at a level of at least 50 percent of last year’s volume, with some even greater,” Telsey said in her report. “Sales seem to be driven by some combination of pent-up demand, U.S. government stimulus checks, a desire to return to the pre-COVID-19 normal, and a high rate of promotions for many.”
Telsey also noted that it’s not surprising “that in-store sales are coming in higher due to conversion and ticket rather than traffic. Importantly, the pace of digital sales for many is not decelerating as physical stores reopen.”
While a recovery appears to be on the right track, there’s no discounting the negative impact COVID-19 will have on total retail sales this year. As the industry heads into the second half, eMarketer said in its retail report Monday that the U.S. retail sector “could take years to recover from the impact of the coronavirus, and the hit could be worse than that of the Great Recession.”
The firm’s forecast for retail sales, which includes auto and fuel, has total sales dropping 10.5 percent this year, which is more drastic than the 8.2 percent decline in 2009 — the onset of the Great Recession. But there will be strength online. “E-commerce is the only bright spot, jumping 18 percent this year, as Americans rely on Amazon and other online retailers for necessities,” eMarketer noted.
The expected decline of more than 10 percent has total retail sales coming in at $4.894 trillion, “a level not seen since 2016,” eMarketer said in its report, adding that these estimates “assume that widespread social distancing measures, which have gradually been lifted in May, will continue to ease and economic activity slowly resumes in [the third quarter].”
“However, consumer spending will likely remain dampened throughout the year,” the report stated. “Total retail sales won’t rebound to 2019 levels until 2022, and estimates throughout the forecast period will be lower than previously predicted.”
Another caveat to the trajectory of retail sales and consumer spending is the psychological outlook of consumers who are 55 and older — who are a high-risk demographic in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak again this fall, noted Torsten Slok, chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities. Slok shared his perspective during a conference call with investors late last week.
He said older generations are already holding back on spending in physical stores. For the second half of the year, Slok said spending from this group — which represents 40 percent of total consumer expenditures — “depends upon who is scared [to shop] and who’s not scared.”
Slok said it is the behavioral uncertainty of this demographic cohort that is making the modeling of a recovery difficult for economists. “That’s why there’s a lot of debate around what will be the shape of the recovery, why what it will look like, varies,” he said on the call. “Will this be a V-shape? Or U-shape, or L-shape? Or will it be more like the ‘swoosh’ we’ve been talking about? Which means a slow move out of the gradual hole that we are in at the moment.”