Updated Nov 26, 2021 - Economy & Business

America's treat-yourself shopping season

Illustration of a bar chart made of presents.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Inflation is driving prices up, but that's not keeping people out of stores.

What's happening: Retail sales climbed for the third straight month in October — and industry experts say holiday shopping could come roaring back this year after a pandemic-induced slump last year.

  • "It's really strange because you'd expect from some of the economic numbers coming out that retail sales would be looking really terrible, but the absolute reverse is true," Neil Saunders, retail analyst and managing director of GlobalData Retail, told me on the Axios Re:Cap podcast.
  • The return of a proper holiday season after months and months of isolation and stress has many Americans in treat-yourself mode, he says. "One of the things that we're seeing, especially in the run-up to the holidays, is the kind of attitude that, 'I deserve to have a good time because things have been pretty miserable for the past couple of years.'"

By the numbers: The annual rate of inflation reached 6.2% in October — the highest we've seen in more than three decades.

  • But retail sales jumped 1.7% in October, rising for the third month in a row. And sales are 21% above pre-pandemic levels, per the New York Times.
  • Krizzia Soto-Villanueva of Burlington, Vermont, told the Times she's having a "retail therapy" moment: "I'm aware prices are going up, but I spent almost two years without spending money on myself. I'm not going to spend all of my savings, but if I really want something, I'm not going to hesitate much."
  • Indeed, some of the retailers doing especially well right now are luxury brands like Louis Vuitton.

Between the lines: There are a few other reasons why retail is going up-and-to-the-right alongside inflation, Saunders notes.

  • Not all of the rise is from people buying more stuff: Higher prices themselves bloat the sales numbers, he notes.
  • On top of that, the world has still not returned to normal, and people aren't eating out or going to the movies the way they used to. Some of the cash they'd spend on services has been temporarily allocated to goods, says Saunders.

What to watch: Even though shopping is booming, don't expect Black Friday and Cyber Monday to reach pre-pandemic sales levels. This year's holiday shopping has already begun, as concerns about supply chain issues have pushed people to buy gifts earlier.

  • But "earlier buying does not necessarily mean lower spending," says Inna Kuznetsova, CEO of 1010data, a market research firm. "Consumers are hungry for the positive emotions of in-person celebration. So we may see increased spending as well as earlier spending."
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