American consumers went into hiding in September, leaving retailers with dismal sales and an uncertain future well beyond the holiday season as the fallout from the financial meltdown pushes spending even lower.
As retailers reported their monthly sales figures Wednesday, even discounters weren't immune to shoppers' mounting worries about their financial security.
"Discretionary spending has come to a trickle," said Ken Perkins, president of research company RetailMetrics LLC. "Consumers are the most worried I have seen since at least the 1991 recession. There are so many factors laying on their psyche."
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, said sales of discretionary items were weak as it posted solid results that were nevertheless a bit below expectations. Target Corp. fared far worse, reporting a bigger-than-expected drop and said it expects problems with its credit card business to last through the rest of the year as customers have trouble making payments.
Luxury stores such as Neiman Marcus Group Inc. and Saks Inc. suffered sharp drops as well-heeled shoppers held off on buying $600 stilettos and other luxuries. Many mall-based apparel stores and department stores including J.C. Penney Co. and American Eagle Outfitters Inc. find themselves mired in a deep sales slump.
With no clear spending recovery in sight, retailers are navigating in the dark about how much to cut their spring orders and store expansions to address the dramatic changes in consumer behavior that are expected to persist at least until next year — if not longer.
"We rarely eat out, and even groceries have become a big-ticket item," said Cincinnati resident Victoria Gentry, 41, a single mother of a 15-year-old daughter, who now worries about her job at a bank's merchant service division. "No more payday pizzas now."
Before the financial meltdown began in the middle of last month, customers had already been switching to lower-price brands and stores, cutting back on essentials and making other changes like mending their clothes instead of buying new ones.
"Weakness in consumer spending is a significant drag on overall economic activity," said Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics at economy.com, who now predicts declines in consumer spending, adjusted for inflation, through the first quarter of 2009. "We are on track for something longer and deeper than either of the previous recessions."
Desperation has set in as the critical holiday season approaches. From discounters to luxury stores, merchants have begun cutting holiday orders in recent days, even as goods start to flow into stores, according to Arnold Cohen, co-founder of Mahoney Cohen and Co., an accounting firm for the apparel industry. A slew of companies, from J.C. Penney Co. to Saks Inc., cut their third-quarter outlooks Wednesday as they step up discounting to pull in shoppers. And many are delaying spring orders amid so much uncertainty, Cohen said.
Thomson Reuters estimates that its sales tally for September will be up only 1 percent, well below the 1.9 percent average pace from January through August. The final tally, which will be released Thursday, will reflect results from other merchants such as Gap Inc. and TJX Cos., which are slated to release results later Wednesday or Thursday. The tally is based on same-store sales, or sales at stores opened at least a year.
Analysts and store executives expect spending could deteriorate even more as the problems on Wall Street filter through the economy, with layoffs expected to rise and the credit markets remaining frozen. That means consumers are having a hard time getting loans and credit lines. That's adding to more stress for shoppers, who were already contending with high gas and food prices and a slumping home market. Merchants are also facing tightening lending standards from banks, resulting in bankruptcy filings by such merchants as Mervyns LLC. However, Bob Carbonell, chief credit officer at Bernard Sands LLC, a credit monitoring company, said that as of now, he hasn't seen other major retailers dealing with major liquidity issues.
And even with a massive government bailout package, the stock market's volatility has signaled fears among investors that the rescue plan will not prove to be a panacea. While the Dow Jones industrials were up a bit Wednesday, they had lost 1,400 points in the previous five trading days, wreaking havoc on Americans' retirement funds.
On Wednesday, The Federal Reserve ordered an emergency interest rate cut of a half percentage point to cope with the worst financial crisis since the 1929 stock market crash.
Wal-Mart offered a tepid sales outlook as it reported a 2.4 percent gain in same-store sales, just missing expectations. The company said it was hurt by having to temporarily close 341 stores because of hurricanes Ike, Gustav and Hanna. Wal-Mart said it expects same-store sales at its U.S. stores to be up from 1 to 2 percent for October.
The company said September same-store sales were strong in both grocery and health and wellness and that customers continue to look for basics.
Plenty of others didn't fare as well. Rival Target Corp., which has struggled because of its heavy emphasis on nonessentials such as fashions and home furnishings, reported a 3 percent drop in same-store sales, worse than expected. It also cut its third-quarter outlook as mounting defaults on payments for its store credit card has led to higher write-offs.
Luxury stores saw their sales drop precipitously. Neiman Marcus, which suffered a 12.9 percent decline, expects "customer demand will remain weak for an extended period of time," according to Chairman and CEO Burt Tansky.