As many segments of the economy roar back from pandemic-driven slumps, consumers still aren’t returning to stores like they used to.
Sluggish traffic continues to dog apparel retailers, which are now sitting on large piles of inventory that they have to discount in order to sell. Walmart Inc. WMT, +0.67% and Nordstrom Inc. JWN, -0.81% are among major companies that have announced plans to mark down items in order to clear the shelves.
Despite talk of inflationary pressures on consumers, one key issue for apparel retailers at the moment is simply that shoppers don’t want to buy the sorts of things they have in stock, according to R.J. Hottovy, the head of analytical research at Placer.ai, which uses location data to generate traffic insights.
The inventory that came in was more geared to last year’s trends, and by the time it arrived, “consumer mindset had shifted to more occasion wear,” he told MarketWatch.
There’s been a “definite shift from goods to services,” and when people do buy clothes, they want to dress up for occasions out of town, he said. In contrast, the inventory coming in “was pandemic wear,” or lounge clothes.
The disconnect between shopper needs and available inventory is weighing on traffic trends, Hottovy continued. Retailers plan inventory “usually a year out, if not more,” he said.
Of course, trends change quickly. Morgan Stanley analyst Kimberly Greenberger highlighted earlier this week that Nordstrom “merchandise skews heavily to wear-to-work and special occasion.” The company has benefited as shoppers load up on new office wear after having “over-spent” on more casual areas of clothing last year, but she worries that Nordstrom’s offerings could fallout of favor next year if consumer priorities shift again.
Some categories—and retailers—are performing better than others in the current environment. The beauty business is holding up well, according to Hottovy. And Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. DKS, +2.00%, which has changed up the look of its stores in recent years, posted better-than-expected numbers.
“Store traffic trends were strong again this quarter as guests return to in-store shopping and services,” Ulta Beauty Inc. ULTA, +1.75% Chief Executive David Kimbell said on the company’s earnings call Thursday. “While store traffic remained slightly below pre-pandemic levels, the trend continues to improve.”
The management team at Dick’s didn’t spend much time discussing traffic on the company’s latest earnings call, though Chief Financial Officer Navdeep Gupta said that he was “pleased with the overall trajectory of the traffic.”
Some retailers, including department stores, made moves during the pandemic to “rightsize” their store footprints, with the expectation that by closing locations they could get better visitation within those that remained, Placer.ai’s Hottovy said.
Baird analyst David Tarantino, a restaurant analyst who recently looked at how soft retail traffic trends could impact fast-casual food chains, took a more macroeconomic view in discussing foot traffic more broadly across the retail sector.
“Weakness in retail traffic (still meaningfully below pre-pandemic levels) likely reflects increased pressures on discretionary spending as well as structural changes in buying patterns,” Tarantino said in a recent note to clients.
He recently analyzed data from Prodco, a shopper-analytics company, which showed that retail traffic was down 8% in the second quarter relative to three years back, with the comparable-period declines worsening as the quarter went on, and into July and August.
While the Prodco data indicated weakening comparable trends in August, Placer.ai’s intel suggested that traffic patterns were becoming less bad.
“Trends have been fairly soft since March,” Hottovy said, though the pressure has abated a bit more recently. Some of that could be tied to stabilization in inflation or quirks in comparisons, but it could also reflect enthusiasm for the back-to-school season.
“For a lot of people, this is the first ‘normal’ back to school in three years,” he said.
What executives have to say
Below is a smattering of public-company commentary from recent earnings calls, based on an analysis of transcripts from Sentieo’s platform.
- “Old Navy’s women’s assortment and inventory mix continues to be out of sync with the change in consumer category preference, and the fashion choices we did have did not resonate with her.” –Gap Inc. GPS, +1.01% Chief Executive Sonia Syngal, who also said that the company saw “a negative impact on demand and traffic from our core customers as the product they were looking for wasn’t available.”
- “This year, while we continue to run our business with a lower promotional cadence and a healthy inventory position, lower customer traffic and weaker conversion impacted our store productivity and margin performance during the period.” – Guess? Inc. GES, -0.42% Chief Executive Carlos Alberini
- “While we track closely to apparel store traffic in the U.S., our customer was doing more browsing than buying and targeting special occasion items like women’s dresses, where we registered our best ever Q2 sales, and men’s woven shirts.” –Abercrombie & Fitch Co. ANF, -6.49% Chief Executive Fran Horowitz
- “Throughout the quarter, American households faced a challenging inflationary environment, putting pressure on disposable incomes and on our traffic counts.” –Shoe Carnival Inc. SCVL, +11.02% Chief Executive Mark Worden. He noted that traffic declines improved at the end of July and in August “as gas prices receded.”
- “Sales declined 6% in the quarter compared to last year, which was below our expectation as customer traffic slowed noticeably in our stores and across the retail landscape as the quarter progressed.” –Victoria’s Secret & Co. VSCO, -1.96% Chief Executive Martin P. Waters
- “In addition to significant [foreign-exchange] headwinds, the net sales decline was driven by slower retail traffic both in-store and online for discretionary hard-goods categories in all major markets. The slower retail traffic patterns are the results of pressured consumer shopping behaviors globally, driven by rising inflation, higher fuel prices and geopolitical uncertainty.” –Weber Inc. WEBR, +0.22% Chief Financial Officer William Horton
- “While we believe a portion of the demand slowdown we’ve seen could certainly be attributable to us pulling back on marketing, we really did so in response to kind of softening demand, lower foot traffic that started before that pullback.” –Warby Parker Inc. WRBY, +1.34% Co-Chief Executive Neil Blumenthal
- “Studying much of the same industry data that many of you do, we have seen declining retail traffic in areas of weakening apparel sales over the quarter as the consumer faces higher costs on essential goods, particularly grocery.” –Macy’s Inc. M, +2.75% Chief Financial Officer Adrian Mitchell