Retail spending hit pre-pandemic levels in July—but big threats remain

At first blush, it would seem consumers are back and ready to spend again: Americans’ retail spending rose in July over June, increasing for a third straight month, with consumers buying items like electronics and appliances and going out to restaurants again.

New data released on Friday from the U.S. Department of Commerce found that excluding auto-related expenditures, retail spending was up 1.2% last month, beating expectations and surpassing February, the last full month before the onset of the pandemic. The uptick comes as millions of jobs have been added in the U.S. in recent weeks and the unemployment rate is easing.

But the numbers were received by Wall Street in a muted fashion—with the Dow Jones unchanged in late morning trading—for a simple reason: plenty of uncertainty remains.

For one thing, an enhanced unemployment benefit under the Cares Act that gave some 28 million Americans another $600 per week and was a major source of stimulus expired on July 31.

“Consumers have been largely shielded from economic realities by the various stimulus and benefit programs,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail in a research note. “However, many of those advantages expired at the end of July, and August will be the first month when the chill winds of economic turmoil hits many households.” And his data suggests the pullback was nearly instant.

What’s more, with COVID-19 cases still spiking in major cities, notably in the South and Southwest, many consumers remain skittish about hitting stores amid a threat of new lockdowns.

Shoppers continued to open up their wallets for things like home improvement products as they spent on big-ticket items and refurbishing their homes.

But they are still holding back on discretionary spending on things like clothes: apparel spending was up over June but was nonetheless 20% below July 2019 levels, spelling ongoing problems for companies like Gap Inc.

A recent Coresight Research survey found that only 5% of Americans planned to spend part any stimulus money on clothing and shoes, compared to 35% for food and 11% for home improvement.

For clothing and department stores, this is supposed to be one of the busiest times of the year: back-to-school, a season that is second only to Christmas in importance for chains like Kohl’s and J.C. Penney. But this year, with all the questions surrounding the re-opening of schools, that kind of spending has been muted.

Restaurants, meanwhile, have enjoyed a surge in business because many have been able to set up more outside seating in key markets like New York and Boston where indoor dining is banned. However, it remains unclear how much they will be able to keep doing so when colder weather arrives.

And absent more stimulus, the three-month streak of consumer spending growth overall could be short lived.

“Consumer confidence fell back in July and likely stayed low in early August as the rising number of COVID-19 cases and renewed containment measures heightened both health concerns and worries about the economy,” said ING Chief International Economist James Knightley in a note.

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