Inflation, Recession Fears Have Some Holiday Shoppers Trading Down
Consumers are swapping everything from Lululemon leggings to Natori underwear for cheaper alternatives
Consumers are swapping everything from Lululemon leggings to Natori underwear for cheaper alternatives
Many shoppers are trading down to less expensive clothing and accessories—swapping Lululemon leggings for Uniqlo and expensive lingerie for Target bras and panties—as inflation eats into their disposable income and a rocky stock market erodes their wealth.
The downshift raises concerns about the coming holiday season, historically a time when many people splurge on designer handbags, fine jewellery and other extravagant purchases for themselves or loved ones. Investors will get updates on shopping attitudes this week when Ralph Lauren Corp., Michael Kors parent Capri Holdings Ltd. and Tapestry Inc., the owner of Coach, report their latest results.
“I’m skipping the splurge this year,” said Kate Cheng, who owns a jewellery store in San Francisco. Ms. Cheng said she normally treats herself to a designer handbag or another luxury item during the holidays, but is holding off this year over concerns about a looming recession.
She has noticed a shift in her customers’ buying habits in recent months to less-expensive silver jewellery from gold. That has prompted her to curtail her own spending. She switched to Uniqlo leggings instead of products from Lululemon, which cost about twice as much. She also canceled a trip to Maui, which would have cost about $4,000, and instead plans to take a road trip to New Mexico for about half the price.
Seventy-two percent of consumers plan to look for less expensive alternatives this holiday season as a result of inflation, according to a survey of 2,200 U.S. adults by Morning Consult, a research company.
With inflation at a four-decade high, consumers have been trading down to less-expensive groceries and other necessities for the better part of this year. Now, with the stock-market plunge of recent months further eroding the wealth of middle- and higher-income households, the penny-pinching is extending to more discretionary purchases.
Holiday retail sales in November and December, excluding spending on cars, gasoline and restaurants, is slated to increase between 6% and 8% from a year ago, after a 13.5% jump last year, according to the National Retail Federation, a trade group. The labor market is strong, and NRF expects some consumers will tap their savings and credit cards to deal with price increases.
U.S. consumers slowed their spending on luxury goods in recent months, according to credit-card data from Mastercard Inc., Citigroup Inc. and BofA Securities Inc. Spending over the summer and into September fell from the same period a year earlier, after posting double-digit percentage gains for most of the past two years.
Thomas Chauvet, who heads Citi’s Europe luxury goods equity research, said the slowdown was driven by a deceleration in transaction values, suggesting that even affluent consumers are trading down. According to BofA Securities, middle-income consumers, those making $50,000 to $125,000, slowed their spending the most.
Marc Metrick, chief executive of Saks, the online platform of the Saks Fifth Avenue brand, said customers with household incomes of about $100,000 are still spending but at a slower rate. These customers spent 20% more at Saks in recent months compared with the same period in 2021, but that is down from the 40% increase during the first six months of this year. As a result, Saks is selling fewer wallets, belts and other items bought by entry-level shoppers. “They are the canary in the coal mine for sentiment at that aspirational level,” Mr. Metrick said.
Jean-Marc Duplaix, finance chief for Gucci parent Kering SA, told investors in October that entry-level shoppers are buying less. “Among certain categories of products, which are maybe more appealing to a more aspirational clientele, there is some more pressure,” he said.
The slowdown has also hit American jeweller Tiffany, according to its parent, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA. “The business in the U.S. is a bit less strong than it used to be,” but it is still growing at a double-digit percentage, Jean-Jacques Guiony, LVMH’s finance chief, told analysts in early October.
Kering and LVMH executives said some U.S. shoppers shifted spending to Europe given the strength of the U.S. dollar. LVMH said its overall business with American shoppers in the third quarter was similar to the first and second quarters of this year.
Mr. Chauvet said the U.S. slowdown in Citi’s data, which started in May, wasn’t the result of purchases shifting overseas because it captures spending by U.S. consumers regardless of their location.
Luxury brands have been among the most aggressive in raising prices. HSBC estimates the sector raised prices around 5% since April, on top of an 8% increase starting in September 2021.
David Hampshere, who owns a real-estate investment company, switched from Ralph Lauren button-down shirts to Costco Wholesale Corp.’s Kirkland brand earlier this year. “With the stock market tanking and mortgage rates rising, I’ve definitely been cutting my expenses,” said Mr. Hampshere, who is 55 years old and lives in Freeport, Fla.
Mr. Hampshere recently returned a pair of $300 noise-canceling headphones and is instead using an old pair that he already owned. He plans to give friends and family $30 gift cards this holiday season rather than the $100 cards he doled out last year.
Stacie Krajchir, 54, a publicist who lives in Los Angeles, has stopped buying Natori underwear and now gets her bras and panties at Target. “I don’t need a $110 bra,” said Ms. Krajchir. “A $12 bra is good enough.”
She recently returned a $300 blouse she bought at Nordstrom. “I can buy a blouse, jeans and a dress at Zara, and it still won’t add up to $300,” Ms. Krajchir said. She plans to trade down in her gift-giving, too. She is getting her sister one gift this year, instead of the five gifts she normally gives her.
Brett Glickman started swapping lower-priced items for high-end ones in her San Francisco boutique after she noticed consumers becoming more frugal in recent months. She is pulling $198 French silk nightgowns off the shelves and replacing them with $24 sweaters and $65 baby-doll dresses. “I had to flip about 30% of my inventory to less- expensive prices,” the former Levi Strauss & Co. executive said.
JCPenney and Kohl’s Corp. said they are seeing consumers switch to private-label brands, which tend to be more affordable than national brands. “They were definitely trading down,” Jill Timm, Kohl’s finance chief said at a conference in September, referring to Kohl’s shoppers.
Vered DeLeeuw, of Washington, D.C., used to buy most of her clothes at Bloomingdale’s, but has switched to Nordstrom Rack for its bargain prices. “Bloomingdale’s was my mother ship, but it is too expensive now,” the 51-year-old food blogger said.
Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual
Crypto’s lack of connections with traditional finance means its problems haven’t spilled over to the economy
This year’s crypto collapse has all the hallmarks of a classic banking crisis: runs, fire sales, contagion.
What it doesn’t have are banks.
Check out the bankruptcy filings of crypto platforms Voyager Digital Holdings Inc., Celsius Network LLC and FTX Trading Ltd. and hedge fund Three Arrows Capital, and you won’t find any banks listed among their largest creditors.
While bankruptcy filings aren’t entirely clear, they describe many of the largest creditors as customers or other crypto-related companies. Crypto companies, in other words, operate in a closed loop, deeply interconnected within that loop but with few apparent connections of significance to traditional finance. This explains how an asset class once worth roughly $3 trillion could lose 72% of its value, and prominent intermediaries could go bust, with no discernible spillovers to the financial system.
“Crypto space…is largely circular,” Yale University economist Gary Gorton and University of Michigan law professor Jeffery Zhang write in a forthcoming paper. “Once crypto banks obtain deposits from investors, these firms borrow, lend, and trade with themselves. They do not interact with firms connected to the real economy.”
A few years from now, things might have been different, given the intensifying pressure on regulators and bankers to embrace crypto. The crypto meltdown may have prevented that—and a much wider crisis.
Crypto has long been marketed as an unregulated, anonymous, frictionless, more accessible alternative to traditional banks and currencies. Yet its mushrooming ecosystem looks a lot like the banking system, accepting deposits and making loans. Messrs. Gorton and Zhang write, “Crypto lending platforms recreated banking all over again… if an entity engages in borrowing and lending, it is economically equivalent to a bank even if it’s not labeled as one.”
And just like the banking system, crypto is leveraged and interconnected, and thus vulnerable to debilitating runs and contagion. This year’s crisis began in May when TerraUSD, a purported stablecoin—i.e., a cryptocurrency that aimed to sustain a constant value against the dollar—collapsed as investors lost faith in its backing asset, a token called Luna. Rumours that Celsius had lost money on Terra and Luna led to a run on its deposits and in July Celsius filed for bankruptcy protection.
Three Arrows, a crypto hedge fund that had invested in Luna, had to liquidate. Losses on a loan to Three Arrows and contagion from Celsius forced Voyager into bankruptcy protection.
Meanwhile FTX’s trading affiliate Alameda Research and Voyager had lent to each other, and Alameda and Celsius also had exposure to each other. But it was the linkages between FTX and Alameda that were the two companies’ undoing. Like many platforms, FTX issued its own cryptocurrency, FTT. After this was revealed to be Alameda’s main asset, Binance, another major platform, said it would dump its own FTT holdings, setting off the run that triggered FTX’s collapse.
Genesis Global Capital, another crypto lender, had exposure to both Three Arrows and Alameda. It has suspended withdrawals and sought outside cash in the wake of FTX’s demise. BlockFi, another crypto lender with exposure to FTX and Alameda, is preparing a bankruptcy filing, the Journal has reported.
The density of connections between these players is nicely illustrated with a sprawling diagram in an October report by the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which brings together federal financial regulators.
To historians, this litany of contagion and collapse is reminiscent of the free banking era from 1837 to 1863 when banks issued their own bank notes, fraud proliferated, and runs, suspensions of withdrawals, and panics occurred regularly. Yet while those crises routinely walloped business activity, crypto’s has largely passed the economy by.
Some investors, from unsophisticated individuals to big venture-capital and pension funds, have sustained losses, some life-changing. But these are qualitatively different from the sorts of losses that threaten the solvency of major lending institutions and the broader financial system’s stability.
To be sure, some loan or investment losses by banks can’t be ruled out. Banks also supply crypto companies with custodial and payment services and hold their cash, such as to back stablecoins. Some small banks that cater to crypto companies have been buffeted by large outflows of deposits.
Traditional finance had little incentive to build connections to crypto because, unlike government bonds or mortgages or commercial loans or even derivatives, crypto played no role in the real economy. It’s largely been shunned as a means of payment except where untraceability is paramount, such as money laundering and ransomware. Much-hyped crypto innovations such as stablecoins and DeFi, a sort of automated exchange, mostly facilitate speculation in crypto rather than useful economic activity.
Crypto’s grubby reputation repelled mainstream financiers like Warren Buffett and JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Jamie Dimon, and made regulators deeply skittish about bank involvement. In time this was bound to change, not because crypto was becoming useful but because it was generating so much profit for speculators and their supporting ecosystem.
Several banks have made private-equity investments in crypto companies and many including J.P. Morgan are investing in blockchain, the distributed ledger technology underlying cryptocurrencies. A flood of crypto lobbying money was prodding Congress to create a regulatory framework under which crypto, having failed as an alternative to the dollar, could become a riskier, less regulated alternative to equities.
Now, stained by bankruptcy and scandal, cryptocurrency will have to wait longer—perhaps forever—to be fully embraced by traditional banking. An end to banking crises required the replacement of private currencies with a single national dollar, the creation of the Federal Reserve as lender of last resort, deposit insurance and comprehensive regulation.
It isn’t clear, though, that the same recipe should be applied to crypto: Effective regulation would eliminate much of the efficiency and anonymity that explain its appeal. And while the U.S. economy clearly needed a stable banking system and currency, it will do just fine without crypto.
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