Sears Holdings just made news again, for a 12.4 percent comparable-store sales decline at Sears stores and for closing more stores than it had announced just months ago. Meanwhile, mall owners learned in a real estate publication that department store closures alone will vacate 37 million square feet of space this year.
In fact, there’s so much bad news about retail that it’s becoming ho-hum. But what’s important to note is how few of the articles even hint at a cyclical slump to explain what we’re seeing. It’s now clear it’s not cyclical. There’s no recovery coming. And, as the Wall Street firm Wolfe Research just put it, “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
The bearish conclusions reached by Wolfe Research are far from unique, and Wolfe’s outlook can only be described as dire for brick-and-mortar retail. It reached its conclusions in part from a survey of more than 1,000 adult women up to about 35 years old, from the so-called millennial generation.
The Wolfe analysts admit none of the trends in their survey data are new. They already knew that younger people seem to value experiences more than their parents did. They knew young consumers think going online is cheaper than shopping at stores and far less of a hassle. And they knew that the blows of the Great Recession had constrained what young consumers can buy.
The report’s point is that these analysts now realize just how much they underestimated the seismic impact these trends would have on the whole consumer segment of the economy.
Retailers have already had to shift their attention to the millennials as the baby boom generation — some of them maybe spending money as wantonly as ever — are nevertheless entering a period of slowing spending. The boomers are downsizing their houses, their kids are likely gone and dressing well for work no longer matters.
The oldest of the millennials, on the other hand, are moving into their peak consumer spending years. It’s important to note that while many millennials will be living the same lives as their parents, more than enough seem to be living differently to drive big changes in the consumer economy.
Their spending habits are frequently dismissed as simple preferences, but that’s not nearly a complete enough explanation. Rather, they entered a far different world as adults than their parents did.
These are the circumstances beyond anyone’s control that influence the biggest decisions of life, like where to live or when to have children, and were described by State Demographer Susan Brower as “period effects.” This is not a new idea. Some of us remember the stories of parents or grandparents who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, and it’s undeniable that being young parents in that era of fear and want shaped their lifelong habits.
This generation later enjoyed some post-World War II comfort, but my grandmother had already survived a lot of years barely getting by. By her spending habits, it’s clear she never forgot another depression could start any day.
The economic pain of the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 was far less severe, of course, but it can explain some of what young people are doing with their money. A case in point is homeownership. According to data Brower provided, about 23 percent of Minnesotans age 25 owned their own home in 2014, while back in 1980 nearly twice as many 25-year-olds already owned their own place. On the other hand, and this is no surprise, today’s 25-year-olds are far more likely than in 1980 to still be living with mom and dad.
Millennials as a group have less money to spend on stuff even if they wanted to live more like their parents did. In 1990, about 77 percent of 20 to 34-year-olds had a job. But 22 years later, well after the Great Recession, the share of young people fully employed was still lower, and by 10 full percentage points.
And if a tepid labor market wasn’t bad enough, millennials also are more likely to have financial obligations that make covering the monthly nut more challenging.
More than a third of people 25 to 34 years old had a college degree last year, a far bigger percentage than in 1975. While that’s great for millennials’ career prospects and probably life satisfaction, the problem is that years after commencement many are still paying for their college educations. Student loan debt is more than 10 percent of all consumer debt and still climbing, according to Wolfe Research.
“This very educated generation (particularly women) earns less, has more debt, and is more likely to still be living at home compared to their baby boomer parents,” wrote the team at Wolfe, led by Scott Mushkin. “Even with the economy recovering … these characteristics are having a significant impact in the behavior of the generation. Traditional adulthood activities do not look to be just delayed, but rather what defines typical adulthood behavior itself appears to be evolving.”
This broader economic context of the millennials is how Mushkin frames the retailing trend all of us already know about, the shift in market share from stores to e-commerce. Not having quite as much money as their mothers has made younger women very price conscious, Mushkin wrote, and so they go online to find deals.
The fun seems to have gone out of shopping, too. Well-off young women with kids, a coveted consumer, increasingly find shopping just another chore when they already feel pressed for time. They want to buy just about anything they can online and have it delivered to their front door, including dry grocery products, shampoo for their kids’ hair and other everyday items.
Mushkin could think of just one company among the retailers he follows that looks very well positioned if these trends continue to unfold as expected. That company, of course, is Amazon.com.
Its list of likely losers was longer — pretty much any company with lots of stores that sell everyday items.