Apparel specialty retailers and department stores could miss the grade for the upcoming back-to-school shopping season.

In its 14th annual back-to-school sales forecast, Customer Growth Partners expects the apparel firms to see a 1.5 percent sales increase while department stores experience a 4 percent decline. These two sectors are already struggling, according to recent weekly sales data.

Craig R. Johnson, president of the firm, said total b-t-s sales will grow 2.7 percent to $512 billion, “down sharply from last year’s 4.2 percent growth, which itself still lagged from the typical 5 to 6 percent b-t-s growth in the early- to mid-2000s,” he said, adding that this year’s estimated sales “also reflects a further deceleration from 2015 year-to-date, anemic [retail sales] growth of 3.1 percent.”

Johnson said in the report that this year’s b-t-s shopping season will be characterized “by cautious consumers, many in sounder financial health — if they have full-time jobs — but they are shopping less, and reluctant to make big-ticket purchases.”

He went on to note that auto sales “remain robust, inflation is benign and the housing recovery is slowly gathering steam.” However, Johnson said the rebound in “home-related purchases is cannibalizing retail sales in other merchandise sectors, particularly those that figure into [b-t-s] shopping.”

Regarding the so-called fuel dividend, gas prices remain low (24 percent below 2014 prices), Johnson said the savings is “providing only a modest tailwind to retail spending.”

This year, the top-performing segments are expected to be e-commerce, sporting goods and home furnishings. Johnson cited a consumer spending environment that is fatigued by macroeconomic woes such as ISIS, recent cyber-hack attacks, economic troubles in Greece, a meltdown in the Chinese stock market and the Puerto Rican debt crisis — all against a backdrop of “still-anemic domestic growth.”

For individual households, Johnson noted that “balance sheets are much healthier than a few years ago,” but the “deleveraging ‘dividends’ have largely run their course, and are providing little incremental cash flow to fuel new spending,” he said.

However, Johnson said “higher asset prices are generating a wealth effect boost for Wall Streeters and other upper-quintile households, but Main Street consumers still show great spending caution, and downscale consumers remain deeply pressured.”

According to the report, that pressure includes some startling stats — most notably that nearly 52 percent of adults (of working age, 18 or older) are currently out of full- or part-time work.

“Most of the spending increase is sourced from the upper two-income quintiles — predominately homeowners and multicar households — which are driving the robust growth at home-focused retailers and auto dealers,” Johnson said in his report.

 

 

 

 

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