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What recession fears? Consumers shopped up a storm in January
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On Wednesday morning, some economic data from the U.S. Census Bureau seemed to point in the direction of a soft landing, rather than a worsening economy heading into a recession: Retail sales went gangbusters in January — up 3% from December, which was the second-straight downward month of a pretty uninspiring holiday shopping season.
January’s retail sales came in well above expectations, and they’re up pretty much across the board: auto sales, bar and restaurant tabs, furniture, electronics, clothing and cosmetics.
Even accounting for inflation, this looks like a pretty strong rebound for the consumer economy. Inflation and recession worries caused consumers to hold tight to their money in November and December.
“They had done most of their holiday shopping in October, front-loaded the holiday season a little bit and then really pulled back in those two months,” said Kayla Bruun at polling firm Morning Consult. “But what happened at the same time was that inflation started to slow, real incomes actually picked up over that period.”
A lot of workers have been getting raises, and people receiving Social Security benefits got a big cost-of-living increase starting last month. So in January, consumers had more money to spend. Meanwhile, retailers had a lot more stuff to sell, as supply chains have mostly cleared up, said Arun Sundaram at CFRA Research.
“Retailers — their shelves are fully stocked. They have the products that consumers want,” he said.
Products they now have to move off their shelves — fast.
“A lot of retailers have been facing excess inventory issues. We’ve been seeing discounts and markdowns to try to entice consumers to make these purchases,” Sundaram said.
Consumers are shifting how and where they spend in response to inflation, Sundaram said. He’s doing it himself.
“A year, two years ago, back then I was definitely shopping more at Whole Foods and also ordering out more,” he said. “Now, I’m cooking more at home, been going to Walmart more.”
The U.S. consumer is being whipsawed by rising prices and fears of a recession on one side, with rising wages and strong job growth on the other.
It’s hard to predict how they’ll react, said Mark Cohen, a professor a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. “The vagaries of consumer behavior is a black box,” he said.
In January, at least, that black box basically said, “What the heck? Let’s go shopping.”
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