Consumer

Shelly Banjo is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering retail and consumer goods. She previously was a reporter at Quartz and the Wall Street Journal.

How's the U.S. consumer doing? The answer depends on whether you ask an economist or a retailer.

Ask most retailers, and the outlook is the shakiest it's been in years. Just 49 percent of U.S. retail chains said sales at established locations rose in the second quarter from a year earlier, according to an analysis of 110 companies by research firm Retail Metrics.

That marks the lowest percentage for any quarter since 2009, when the U.S. was digging out from the 2008 global financial crisis. And what sales growth there is hasn't been so hot -- in the past couple of years, sales growth has been stuck in a range between 1 percent to 2 percent, according to Retail Metrics president Ken Perkins. 

It's gotten so bad, Bloomberg's Matt Townsend points out, that retailers are no longer just blaming poor sales on such catastrophes as "unseasonably mild spring weather" and are now adding the upcoming presidential election to their list of reasons why shoppers aren't coming into their stores.

The Other Half
Fewer than half of U.S. retail chains saw sales increase in the second quarter from a year earlier, the lowest percentage since the end of the recession in 2009
Source: Retail Metrics

The downbeat results are at odds with some overwhelmingly rosy predictions for the upcoming holiday season, a critical time that can account for anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent of a retailer's sales for the whole year.

The National Retail Federation, which has overshot predictions for the past four years, said last week it expected a 3.6 percent year-over-year increase in sales during the months of November and December. Other retail prognosticators have similarly upbeat projections, with consultancy Pricewaterhousecoopers pegging year-over-year holiday sales growth at 10 percent

Holiday Cheer
Retail organizations, notorious for their optimism, predict a rosy holiday season for retail sales this year
Source: Retail Metrics
Figures represent percentage change in sales from a year earlier.

Perhaps the disconnect stems from who is preparing these cheery outlooks: Most likely, economists. 

Making up roughly two-thirds of U.S. gross domestic product, consumer spending is a closely watched marker for economic growth. Economists looking at Friday's employment report -- showing continued steady job growth -- along with accelerating wage increases and recent record-breaking surveys of consumer confidence, might assume consumers are in good spirits. 

Confidence Boost
In September, consumer confidence hit its highest point since 2007. U.S. consumers are feeling good, but is that making them want to spend more money?
Source: Conference Board
Seasonally adjusted; Base year 1985 = 100

Shoppers may be happy, but they are also being particularly choosy about where they spend their money.

A quick look at the gap between sales growth at e-commerce retailers (mostly, Amazon) and sales growth at traditional retailers reveals where some of those dollars are going. Spending increases on health care, housing and travel -- along with a relatively inflated savings rate -- also explain where some of the money is heading.

Uneven Growth
Online sales are growing much faster than sales at brick-and-mortar retailers
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Either way, Americans will no doubt whip out their pocketbooks to spend this holiday season. Just don't expect a like-for-like translation into sales growth for traditional retailers in the coming quarters. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Shelly Banjo in New York at sbanjo@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Gongloff at mgongloff1@bloomberg.net