Americans Just Can’t Stop Shopping

(Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash)
(Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash)

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There’s nothing a little retail therapy can’t solve, right?

US retail sales rose by 0.7% in July versus the month prior, beating consensus forecasts and following two prior months that saw upward revisions, according to Department of Commerce data released Tuesday. Then again, given the one-two economic punch of a hot job market and rising wages, perhaps the nationwide shopping spree is less therapeutic and more celebratory.

Confessions of the Shopaholics

The key to avoiding a recession may just be good vibes. And this summer has brought them in spades. July marks the fourth straight month of increased consumer spending, as well as the fastest month-over-month increase of the year. And with the 0.7% increase in retail sales outgrowing the 0.2% increase in consumer prices, US spending is outpacing inflation — which means we’re on schedule for a rare economic soft landing that tames inflation without triggering a recession.

“Real GDP growth could accelerate to a 3% increase,” Stephen Stanley, chief US economist at Santander US Capital Markets, told Bloomberg Tuesday. That would top the solid 2.4% increase seen last quarter. What’s more, a breakdown of spending categories shows the Fed’s interest-hiking campaign is applying downward pressure almost exactly where it intended:

  • Sales increased in nine of 13 retail categories last month, according to the data. Sectors that saw a sales decrease include auto dealers, electronics, and furniture stores — which tend to be highly sensitive to rising borrowing costs.
  • But shoppers beefed up spending everywhere else, including bars and restaurants, back-to-school expenses like clothing and books, as well as groceries and hardware stores. It’s the little things that count in life.

“Despite the additional pressure put on the Fed, Americans’ sustained ability to spend speaks to the strength of the US economy in the face of global economic challenges,” Mike Loewengart, head of model portfolio construction at the Morgan Stanley Global Investment Office, told CNBC.

Primetime: Underpinning the entire trend: a nearly 2% spike in online shopping. One could thank Amazon for that — its 48-hour Prime Day summer promotion is estimated to have seen upwards of $13 billion in revenue, or more than 10% of July’s total e-commerce sales. But as Amazon soars, as usual, its institutional retail competitors continue to flounder. Home Depot is forecasting its first yearly revenue decline since 2009 (another point scored for Jerome Powell). Meanwhile, Target is expected to report its first quarterly sales decline in four years on Wednesday. Even in a nation of spenders, brick-and-mortar players can’t catch a break.