Although households are earning more money and saving it too, consumers are not spending it — but this will likely change over the next few years thanks to Millennials, social media and mobile devices.
Amid a soft consumer spending report from the Department of Commerce earlier this week and comments from two Federal Reserve Bank policymakers who are concerned that consumer behavior is shifting for the worse, the outlook for apparel retailing appears shaky.
However, research from Mintel, a “market intelligence” firm, insists the long-term outlook for apparel, footwear and accessories remains bright — although the analysts stress that while consumers will continue to spend, they are much more cautious about what and where they buy.
Mintel is forecasting sales of apparel, footwear and accessories to grow 14.7 percent to $483.6 billion by 2019 from $421.8 billion last year. The growth rate lags behind the 21.9 percent projected growth rate for all consumer spending.
“Clothing and accessories sales will continue to grow, driven by mobile and online shopping,” said Diana Smith, senior retail and apparel analyst at the firm. “Young adults are active buyers and more prone to engage with tools like user reviews, social media and apps along their shopping journeys.”
The analysts expect “value-oriented retailers” to be the big winners, and they will “continue to see gains given the importance of price and promotion to today’s savvy shoppers.”
Driving spending gains in an overall improvement in consumer confidence and employment as well as steady population growth – “especially among 25 to 34 [year olds] and Hispanics,” the authors noted, adding these groups “will drive the future of the market, as will the growth in mobile and online shopping.”
“While items in this category can be deemed essential, the amount of items purchased and amount spent is discretionary,” the researchers said. “In positive economic times, consumers are more apt to make discretionary clothing and accessory purchases.”
If consumers are not spending at the same rate on apparel and footwear as they are on other categories, where is their money going? The researchers said “nonessential categories” such as eating out and taking vacations are expected to post a 27 percent gain in sales over the next five years.
“Improving personal finances, shifting demographics and consumers balancing spending priorities by trading up or down rather than cutting spending entirely or splurging across the board will drive these increases,” the authors said.
Demographically, Baby Boomers will fuel a bulk of those sales as they retire and take more frequent vacations. Millennials too will pump a lot of dollars into tourism and related spending. The report noted that 30 percent of international travelers are Millennials.
In the short-term there are several challenges to retail growth. On Monday, the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis said personal consumption expenditures were flat for April, which compares with a 0.5 percent gain in March.
However, personal income rose 0.4 percent in April, up from March’s flat reading while disposable income also increased 0.4 percent. The savings rate climbed 5.6 percent, which compares with a 5.2 percent gain in March.
Following the report, Eric Rosengren, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, said current economic conditions are “softer than many forecasters expected in the first half of this year.” He acknowledged that the outlook for the second half is better. Still, Rosengren believes that consumer spending patterns have shifted significantly, and shoppers are entrenched in a post-Great Recession, cautionary environment. This is troublesome because nearly 70 percent of gross domestic product is due to spending on consumer goods and services.
Lael Brainard, governor of the Federal Reserve and a voting member of the Federal Open Market Committee, said Tuesday that “continuing softness in consumption this year would naturally raise some questions about a more persistent change in consumer behavior.”
Brainard said the financial crisis “may have altered expectations of longer-run income growth and attitudes toward risk such that consumers may be more cautious about spending gains in income and wealth that are perceived to be temporary.” She went on to say that even modest growth in consumer expenditures “would be significant because strength in other categories of aggregate demand remains elusive.”
The Fed governor said April housing starts and permits, for example, look good, but the current level of “single-family housing permits is little changed from the level in the fourth quarter of last year, and average growth in residential investment over the past year and a half has been tepid.”
“Given low interest rates and continued job gains, it is puzzling that housing starts have remained far below the trend levels implied by population growth,” she said. “Tight credit for borrowers with less-than-pristine credit may explain some of the weakness. But it is also possible that attitudes toward home ownership have changed as a result of the financial crisis and recent recession, especially among the Millennial Great Recession generation.”
If that’s the case, this raises some serious questions, including whether a shift in consumer behavior is permanent. And if shoppers have been traumatized, so to speak, by the recession, what can apparel and other retailers do to win them back? At the least, companies need to connect to shoppers in more meaningful ways — especially online, according to the Mintel report.
“Seeking and sharing opinions about clothing and accessories online is an important part of the shopping process for some demographics, such as [Millennials],” the analysts said. “Retailers should act as the conduit for these conversations and aid customers with their purchase decisions. This can be done by maintaining active brand profiles on social media platforms, through upkeep of easy-to-navigate Web sites with user reviews, and by offering innovative mobile shopping apps.”