Updated Mar 14, 2024 - Economy

Unstoppable shopping slows, and that could be a problem for the economy

Illustration of online shopping cart with items in it declining

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The job market is chugging along, unemployment remains historically low and wages are rising at a decent clip. Still, consumers aren't spending like they used to.

Why it matters: That's a sharp turnaround from recent years, when shoppers looked unstoppable — even in the face of decades-high interest rates and inflation. Now consumers appear more cautious and spending is weakening, threatening a critical factor that's kept the economy strong.

By the numbers: Retail spending bounced back slightly in February from a sharp pullback at the start of the year. The Commerce Department said Thursday that retail sales rose 0.6% last month. But January's drop was worse than initially thought: Retail sales fell 1.1%, not the 0.8% first estimated.

  • It was the fourth straight month with a negative revision to earlier months' data.
  • And February's rebound in retail sales was driven by strong sales at gasoline stations that rose nearly 1% — a result of higher gas prices. The data is not adjusted for inflation.
  • Retail sales of the control group — which excludes volatile categories like gas, autos, and building materials and therefore tracks more closely with overall consumer spending — was flat in February after a decline in January.

What they're saying: "Elevated interest rates, an uptick in energy costs, and persistent discomfort with price levels continue to push consumers to make trade-offs with budgeting, with goods categories increasingly overlooked in favor of services spending," Kayla Bruun, a senior economist at Morning Consult, wrote in a note.

  • "Taken together, the January and February spending data point to softer spending momentum at the start of the year," Gregory Daco, chief economist at EY-Parthenon, wrote — adding that strong income growth may support spending growth through the end of the first quarter.

What to watch: Other indicators hint that the consumer is losing momentum. In a report this week, BofA economists say that spending growth among lower and middle-income households is weakening after "being a point of strength during 2023."

  • While the overall job market is healthy, employment for those without a college education has slowed in recent months, the economists say — one factor that might be crimping spending in this cohort.
  • Delinquencies on credit card and auto loans have ticked up in recent months as well, according to New York Fed data.

The bottom line: U.S. consumers have powered overall economic growth forward for the last three years, but there are early warning signs that they can't be counted on to do so again in 2024.

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