What The Latest Retail Sales Trends Reveal About American Shoppers

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Yesterday’s Census Department release on retail sales for June 2017 gave a sobering look at the current state of American retail. While total sales year-over-year were up 3.9% for the first six months, a rundown comparing May to June 2017 estimates (unadjusted) were not so kind.

Every major reporting category except electronics and appliance stores and sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores showed a monthly decline. Even non-store retailers, where e-commerce retail is classified, reported a 2.8% dip.  Overall June retail and food services sales dropped 3.2% from May 2017.

While we have to wait for full mid-year reporting on all sectors of retail, the Census updated its comprehensive data on sales by type of retailer through May. A look at the YoY trending categories at retail reveals important changes taking place in the consumer market, reflecting not just changes in their buying behavior but underlying trends that are taking place culturally.

Here is my read on the data and what it reveals about the American shopper:

Change in retail sales by kind of business Jan-May 2016-2017

Change in retail sales by kind of business Jan-May 2016-2017

  • More need for diversions from our troubles

There is no question that American consumers are troubled by the ever growing dangers in the world as it threatens the very foundation of the American way of life. They are also made anxious by the political hubbub, fake news posturing and other distractions that are taking our leaders away from their much more important task of governing and ruling this great nation and setting it on the right course to grow the economy and help American citizens prosper.

In the face of these struggles, Americans are finding solace at the bar, which not only helps them escape from their worries temporarily but also provides much-needed connection with others as they share drinks at the pub.

In addition, they are pursuing more DIY home improvement projects, as the growth in the building supply dealers testifies to, including getting their hands dirty in the garden.

  • On the road again

Encouraged by cheaper gas, Americans are getting into their cars and traveling more, going to new places, seeing new sights and just enjoying the road travel experience. This may also be a reflection of the problems confronted in air travel, which has gotten plenty of press lately.

As for me, when I need to travel places I can reach by car in less than a day, I will always opt for a road trip, rather than undergoing the trials and tribulations of flying. I suspect there are many others that share this view.

  • More online shopping

Internet shopping is replacing the hassles of in-store shopping, no question of that. It is not only that online gives access to more products, often at a cheaper price, but online saves huge amounts of time when people need a specific item.

Going to the store or the mall, therefore, becomes a discretionary diversion undertaken primarily when people want a shopping experience, as opposed to a buying experience, in which online often proves to be the best option. Amazon’s record-breaking Prime Day on July 12, which saw sales rise 60% over last year’s, demonstrates just how much shoppers value the comfort and ease of shopping electronically without ever having to cross the threshold of a retail store.

For just about every product category, Americans simply don’t need to go to the store in order to shop, so going to the store becomes the experience.

  • More experiences, fewer things

The fact that sales in used merchandise stores are growing so rapidly is not necessarily a reflection of cash-strapped customers looking for bargains, though surely that plays a role. But I believe it is far more a reflection of consumers turning away from the pursuit of a materialistic culture where one is defined by the things one has. Rather they are chasing more meaningful lifestyle experiences.

In buying previously-owned things, people acknowledge that repurposing, reusing, and seeking out used items is a lifestyle that they embrace. The “Tiny House” movement with its rallying cry “Tiny House-Big Living,” is more than just a cable television show. It is a lifestyle that more Americans are pursuing, if not by actually living tiny, but thinking that way. And they start by ridding themselves of all the extraneous junk they have collected. When they actually need something, they increasingly are looking to gently-used goods as a better solution, both for their pocketbook and the planet.

  • More investment in home

Americans continue to invest in their homes, upgrading it and adding value in the process. This enhances their overall enjoyment while they are at home, as well as improving its resale value.  Home furnishings stores, building materials suppliers, like big-box retailers Home Depot and Lowe's, specialty flooring, paint and wallpaper stores are reaping the benefits.  

  • Men are getting fashionable

Men are spending more on clothes. This is an interesting trend, especially now that Walmart has acquired men’s clothing retailer Bonobos. Men are paying serious attention to their presentation, both at work to advance their careers and also in their personal lives when casual attire is called for. This woman, for one, applauds men thinking more about how they look and the message it sends to those they meet.

In conclusion, June’s sad retail numbers, down 3.2% from May (not adjusted) could prove to be only a blip and come back as the year progresses. On the other hand, the effects of the spate of retail closings, estimated to reach 8,640 this year by Credit Suisse, could be starting to show. Time will tell, but I am not optimistic.

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