No matter how positive their quarterly sales were, one common thread wound its way through retailers’ recently released financials: they’re treading lightly because they are not sure how consumers will behave in the coming months.
You know that old expression, “If I had a dollar for…”? Well, if I had dollar for every executive who said the word “cautious” and/or mentioned uncertain consumers in their most recent earnings reports, then I could have taken a vacation over Labor Day weekend instead of watching Netflix in my apartment.
Macy’s is lowering its guidance for the second half of the year after a disappointing second quarter it said was a reflection of consumers’ continuing uncertainty about the economy, and the chief financial officer of Walmart mentioned cautious consumers when talking about his company’s second-quarter same-store sales decline.
Then there are the big players in the jewelry space: Sterling Jewelers and Zale, which rank as the No. 1 and No. 4 jewelry retailers in the U.S. market, respectively.
Signet Jewelers, parent company of Sterling Jewelers (Kay Jewelers and Jared the Galleria of Jewelry), and Zale both had fine quarters, and Zale turned its first profit in six years.
Despite reaching this financial milestone, Zale CFO Thomas Haubenstricker said they continue to take a “conservative view” of market conditions in the United States and Canada.
For the third quarter, Signet expects same-store sales to increase by a low single-digit percentage, which doesn’t seem to be an outrageously low forecast, considering the fourth quarter is really the time of the year when jewelers expect big comps.
But during the company’s conference call Mike Barnes, CEO of Sterling parent company Signet Jewelers, said there is a lot of “noise out there” regarding consumers and it is unknown what is going to happen in the geo-political climate. This was a reference, perhaps, to the United States’ impending involvement in the conflict in Syria. (For those distracted from real news by Miley Cyrus’ twerking, yes, this is happening.)
When asked specifically during the call about the health of consumers, Barnes noted retailers are getting “mixed messages.” While consumers are “fairly healthy” right now, they “run in cycles” he said.
I took this to mean that there is no longer one stable, predictable pattern of consumer behavior. They could be spending one day and close their wallets completely the next, with seemingly no provocation.
This seems to be the new normal, and it results in a vicious cycle that causes caution among both consumers and retailers.
The U.S. economy is fueled by consumers spending money. But consumers are pulling back because they feel uncertain about the economy for reasons that are both real and imagined, which is actually causing the economy to slow down and, in turn, creating more uncertainty. It leaves everybody little choice but to be, what else?, cautious.