The U.S. consumer will be in focus this week, with the Commerce Department’s monthly retail sales report and earnings results from two of the country’s largest big box retailers all on deck.
Tuesday’s report from the Commerce Department is expected to show that retail sales dropped in July compared to June, with consumer spending pulling back as concerns over the Delta variant increased and the impacts of government-issued stimulus checks earlier this year waned.
Consensus economists expect to see a 0.2% drop in retail sales month-on-month following June’s 0.6% gain. This would be the first monthly drop since May, though it would still leave retail sales up markedly from last year’s pandemic-depressed levels. Retail sales have risen in four of the past six months, with notable surges coming in January and March in the wake of the distribution of stimulus checks.
While the underlying trend in consumer spending is decelerating, some of the expected drop in July’s retail sales report will also be technical, some economists pointed out. Namely, Amazon (AMZN) – one of the largest retailers in the U.S. — held its annual Prime Day sales extravaganza a month early in June rather than in July, pulling forward the rush of spending and creating a tougher comparison to retail sales compared to last year. E-commerce sales — or “non-store retailers’ sales,” as the Commerce Department labels them — grew 1.2% in June overall compared to May.
“One of the main reasons for July’s weakness was due to a slowdown in online retail sales, which we believe owes in large part to the timing of Prime Day promotions this year,” Bank of America economist Michelle Meyer wrote in a note Friday. “Historically, Prime Day is in mid-July but this year was pulled forward to June. Since the seasonal factors are set based on a gain in July, the data will be adjusted lower on a [seasonally adjusted] basis for online spending.”
Meyer also notes that the government retail sales report captures more consumer spending on goods rather than on services, and therefore will likely also downplay the spending that has been occurring in the travel and leisure industries as consumer mobility picked up in the coming months.
But with coronavirus cases rising as the Delta variant spreads, the path forward for consumer spending has become less clear. Recent data showing a rapid deterioration in consumer confidence has been most concerning on this front, suggesting consumers’ propensity to spend might be sinking.
On Friday, the headline index in the University of Michigan’s preliminary August sentiment survey sank to 70.2 — the lowest level since 2011, and a tick below even April 2020’s previous pandemic-era low of 71.8. An increase in concern over the pace of the economic recovery due to the Delta variant was one of the primary drivers of the decrease, according to the institution.
The disappointing University of Michigan sentiment print “suggests the latest wave of virus cases driven by the Delta variant could be a bigger drag on the economy than we had thought,” Andrew Hunter, senior U.S. economist for Capital Economics, wrote in a note Friday.
“With the fiscal stimulus boost now well passed and surging prices starting to hit real incomes, the drop in confidence is another reason to expect consumption growth to slow sharply over the coming months,” he added.
Walmart, Target earnings
Quarterly earnings results from Walmart and Target are set to provide more details on trends in consumer spending at the individual company level.
Both companies have seen their e-commerce businesses benefit from the shift to digital transactions during the pandemic, while also gaining as consumers sought out big box stores that facilitated one-stop shopping trips for all necessities.
One of the primary challenges for both companies will be showing Wall Street they have still grown and retained the customers and level of sales brought on during the pandemic. The second quarter of last year marked the height of stay-in-place orders in the U.S., putting second-quarter results for this year up against especially tough comparisons.
Walmart, the biggest retailer in the U.S., is expected to see overall revenue dip by 1% to $136.6 billion for its July quarter, marking its first year-over-year sales decline since fiscal 2016. E-commerce sales are expected to decelerate further, and most recently grew at a 37% rate in the first quarter after peaking at a 97% growth rate in the second quarter of last year.
In May before the Delta variant began spreading widely in the U.S., Walmart had raised its second-quarter and full-year outlook, citing momentum after a better-than-expected start to the year.
“The second quarter started off a bit better than originally anticipated as stimulus spending [continued] to benefit certain general merchandise categories, and we expect grocery market share gains to continue,” said Walmart Chief Financial Officer Brett Biggs during the company’s last earnings call. The updated guidance at the time assumed second-quarter earnings per share, excluding divestitures, would be up by “low-single digits” compared to last year, and that U.S. comparable same store sales, excluding fuel, would be up by a similar margin.
Walmart may also have benefitted from spending leading up to the back-to-school season and from a pick-up in shopping in-person during the quarter. According to data from Placer.ai, Walmart’s foot traffic returned to pre-pandemic levels in July as visits rose 2.9% compared to the same month in 2019.
For Target, the jump in foot-traffic has been even greater on a two-year stack, surging by 15.9% in July compared to 2019, according to Placer.ai.
The Minneapolis-based retailer is expected to grow revenue to $24.5 billion for the second quarter, marking an increase of 8% over last year — an above-trend growth rate by pre-pandemic standards, but a slowdown from the 23% increase posted in both the first quarter of this year and the comparable quarter last year.
Target has also continued to grow digital sales even after last year’s surge, with digital sales climbing 50% in the first quarter this year after a 141% jump in early 2020. A pick-up in higher-priced clothing and beauty sales may also have helped boost Target’s margins in the second quarter, with consumers purchasing goods in anticipation of going back out.
Shares of Target have climbed 48% so far for the year-to-date, outpacing the S&P 500’s nearly 19% gain over that period. Walmart’s stock has increased 3.6% over the same period.
Monday: Empire Manufacturing, August (26.3 expected, 43.0 in July); Total net TIC flows, June ($105.3 billion in May); Net long-term TIC flows, June (-$30.2 billion in May)
Tuesday: Retail sales advance month-on-month, July (-0.2% expected, 0.6% in June); Retail sales excluding autos and gas, July (0.2% expected, 1.1% in June); Industrial production, month-on-month, July (0.5% expected, 0.4% in June); Capacity utilization, July (75.7% expected, 75.4% in June); Manufacturing production, July (0.7% expected, -0.1% in June); Business inventories, June (0.8% expected, 0.5% in May); NAHB Housing Market Index, August (80 expected, 80 in July)
Wednesday: MBA mortgage applications, week ended August 13 (2.8% during prior week); Building permits, month-on-month (1.0% expected, -5.3% in June); Housing starts, July (-2.3% expected, 6.3% in June); FOMC Meeting Minutes
Thursday: Initial jobless claims, week ended August 13 (375,000 during prior week); Continuing claims, week ended August 7 (2.866 million during prior week); Philadelphia Fed Business Outlook, August (24.2 expected, 21.9 in July); Leading index, July (0.8% expected, 0.7% in June)
Wednesday: Target (TGT), Lowe’s (LOW), The TJX Companies (TJX) before market open; Robinhood Markets (HOOD), Nvidia (NVDA), Cisco Systems (CSCO), Victoria’s Secret & Co. (VSCO), Bath & Body Works (BBWI) after market close
Emily McCormick is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @emily_mcck
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