Photographer: David Williams/Bloomberg

Retailers Are Now Blaming the Election for Poor Sales

  • Executives say shoppers ‘glued’ to campaign, not spending
  • The race ‘doesn’t seem to be affecting Amazon’s sales’

It’s usually the weather. Now there’s a new excuse that U.S. retailers and restaurants are floating to explain their lackluster results.

It’s the election, stupid.

To hear retail executives tell it, the battle for the presidency between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton is causing Americans to put off buying everything from romance novels at Barnes & Noble and jeans from the Gap to burritos at Yum! Brand Inc.’s Taco Bell. They might even be delaying wedding engagements, not good news for companies like Signet Jewelers Ltd.

“The preoccupation with this election is keeping them at home, glued to their TVs and at their desktops,” said Len Riggio, the founder and chief executive officer of Barnes & Noble Inc. This election is “unprecedented in terms of the fear, anger and frustration being experienced by the public.”

Retailers and restaurants have used a handful of well-worn excuses over the years with varying levels of legitimacy. There’s the usual culprit, the weather, and shifts in the calendar, such as Easter coming early. Now they’ve added presidential politics. That explanation had some validity four years ago because the backdrop of the campaign was the so-called fiscal cliff that was due to usher in large tax increases and government spending cuts, says Ken Perkins, president of researcher Retail Metrics.

Premise Questioned

Presidential campaigns have often created uncertainty in corporate boardrooms. Business executives worry about what will happen to fiscal policy, trade and government spending. But it’s dubious to assume that such concern is filtering down to the middle class, even if this is a “wacky” campaign, according to Perkins. Meanwhile, some measures of U.S. consumer confidence are the highest in nine years.

“They are reaching,” Perkins said. “I don’t think it’s affecting moms as they go out and do their weekly shopping. If it’s something you do on a regular basis, you’re going to stop doing it because you’re worried about which candidate is going to win? It doesn’t seem to be affecting Amazon’s sales.”

Even with rising consumer confidence and job gains, many large retailers are posting disappointing results. In the most recent quarter, only 49 percent of U.S. chains increased same-store sales, the lowest mark since the recession in 2009, according to Retail Metrics.

‘Unsettled World’

McDonald’s Corp., the world’s biggest restaurant chain, cited the election in July, when the Democratic and Republican conventions dominated the news.

“There’s just a broader level of uncertainty in consumers’ minds at the moment, both trying to gauge their financial security going forward, whether through elections, or through global events, people are slightly mindful of an unsettled world,” CEO Steve Easterbrook said. “And when people are uncertain, when families are uncertain, caution starts to prevail and they start to hold back on spending.”

Here’s a sampling of executives blaming Clinton and Trump for their woes.

  • Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor (Aug. 10): “There is a lot of uncertainty in the consumer’s mind as we work through the election.”
  • Signet CEO Mark Light (Aug. 25): “There’s a presidential election, which is unique this year, and I think has some very unique characteristics that could be affecting the mindset of Middle America consumers until we get through this.”
  • Richard Ausick, president of retail for Caleres Inc., which operates Famous Footwear and Dr. Scholl’s (Aug. 30): The election “has an impact on the customer, particularly what we’re talking about -- it being as intense and negatively toned as it has been. It’s probably only going to get worse. That just leaves people concerned about what’s going on.”
  • Gap CEO Art Peck (Sept. 7): “The election here in the United States is a level of uncertainty that’s probably unsettling consumers right now.”
  • Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen Inc. Chief Financial Officer Will Matt (Sept. 13): “We see gas prices being lower. You see unemployment being lower. But what we also see is that there is more uncertainty with the consumer. We’re not too sure what’s causing that, but our speculation would be -- we think -- there is a rather unusual election going on and we think the unusual election is causing some uncertainty.”
  • Yum CEO Greg Creed (Oct. 6): “There is just great uncertainty as to what is going to happen in the U.S. in particular as a result of the outcome of the election. It goes without saying that people are sort of trying to decide who to choose, and what the impact will be on the economy. People may be hunkering down a little bit.”
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