This year’s graduation season did nothing to inspire pomp or circumstance at retail.
With the job market tight and consumer confidence recently drifting downward, San Jose, Calif.-based consumer analysis firm RetailNext found a drop in traffic, transactions, items and ultimately dollars during the graduation gifting season, which begins in mid-May and carries into the beginning of June.
For the more than 8 million shopping visits monitored by the firm during the period, traffic was off 5.4 percent, transactions off 4.7 percent and items sold off 5.6 percent. With conversion rates steady in comparison to the period just before the graduation season, this resulted in a 4.3 percent decline in dollars.
Apparel and accessories activity was also down. Tracking 4 million shopping visits, RetailNext found that there was milder decline in traffic and transactions, off 4.3 percent and 3.2 percent, respectively, but a larger reversal in sales, which were down 5.3 percent.
RetailNext scrutinized data from 513 U.S. retail stores, including department stores and apparel specialty stores.
Tim Callan, chief marketing officer at the firm, said the limited career opportunities for graduates affected the results. “If kids are coming home to live with their parents after graduation, they’re obviously not going to get a lamp for their new apartments,” he said. “And they’re not going to be getting a business card holder if they don’t have a job waiting for them.”
With the uncertainty of the postcollegiate experience for so many, gift card shopping spiked, with shopping for credit-debit cards 32 percent higher than in the prior period and apparel cards drawing 20 percent more attention. Entertainment and phone card engagement were up 25 and 19 percent, respectively, while restaurant cards were unchanged.
“The sharp increase in shopping for gift cards — and especially those debit cards that are taken in most stores — implies a preference for providing the recipient more flexibility in using the value of the gift,” said Chitra Balasubramanian, vice president of insights for the company. “That might reflect frugality in the present down economy and soft job market.”
The study found that California was able to overcome a 17 percent decline in traffic and generate 6 percent gains in transactions and dollars. The key was a 5 percent improvement in conversion rates.
“By converting shoppers at a considerably higher rate, California retailers came out ahead in a season that was tough for much of the nation,” she said.