Consumers are entering the second half of the retail year with their confidence in the economy unsteady and their willingness to spend restrained.
Two reports Tuesday — the monthly Consumer Confidence Index from The Conference Board and the weekly chain-store sales index from The Retail Economist LLC and Goldman Sachs & Co. — demonstrated an up-and-down view of the economy and ongoing weakness in consumer demand at retail, respectively.
The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index declined nearly nine full points in July, settling at 90.9 after advancing to 99.8 in June. The mark for July was the lowest since the index landed at 89 last September. It remained below 100 before rising to 103.8 in January. Six months later, that remains the high-water mark for the index this year.
The tumble was brought on by a more than 10-point decline in the Expectations Index, which fell to 79.9 after hitting 92.8 in June. The Present Situation Index lost less ground but declined nonetheless to 107.4 from 110.3 a month ago.
Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at the Conference Board, noted that, despite the wide swings in the index in recent months, it “remains at levels associated with an expanding economy and a relatively confident consumer.”
Franco attributed July’s decline to a combination of troubling events both close to home and outside the U.S.
“Consumers continue to assess current conditions favorably, but their short-term expectations deteriorated this month. A less optimistic outlook for the labor market, and perhaps the uncertainty and volatility in financial markets prompted by the situation in Greece and China, appear to have shaken consumers’ confidence,” she said.
As has been the case since the recession of the last decade, job availability and security continue to be among the leading indicators of consumers’ assessment of economic performance. Those stating jobs are “plentiful” declined to 20.7 percent from 21.3 percent, while those claiming jobs are “hard to get” rose to 26.7 percent from 26.1 percent.
However, those looking into the likely condition of the job market in the months ahead were more pessimistic. Those anticipating more jobs decreased to 13.1 percent from 17.1 percent, while those expecting a drop in job availability increased by nearly a quarter, to 20 percent from 15.2 percent.
Those expecting personal income growth fell to 17 percent from 17.6 percent while the percentage anticipating a decline rose to 11.2 percent to 10.6 percent.
The week-over-week performance of the chain-store sales index, which had managed to stay in positive territory for five of the last six weeks, returned to negative status during the seven days ended July 25. The year-on-year increase was 2.2 percent, halfway between the 1.9 percent increase of two weeks ago and last week’s 2.5 percent rise. However, sales receded 0.2 percent on a sequential basis.
Michael Niemira, chief economist and principal of The Retail Economist, was confident that back-to-school purchasing would accelerate in the days ahead as 16 states celebrate sales-tax holidays, often supported by retailer promotions to encourage buying.
“The back-to-school season affects approximately 80 million students — which includes approximately 20 million college students — attending educational institutions from grade to graduate school,” Niemira said. “That population accounts for just over a quarter of the entire population in the nation. Add to those figures the number of public- and private-school teachers, school administrators and staffs and other support functions…and it boosts the tally by another nearly 14 million people whose jobs are dependent on educating students.”
The recent strength for furniture stores continued last week and dollar stores and discounters had “solid gains.” Department stores were described as having an “especially weak” performance, as did drug and electronics stores. Apparel, office and grocery stores and wholesale club performance was characterized as “weak.”