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Retailers Like Abercrombie & Fitch Feel the Pinch as Non-Essential Spending Falls

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In this May 24, 2018, file photo, items are displayed at an Abercrombie and Fitch retail outlet in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
Abercrombie & Fitch, which had its colorful history of catering to deep-pocketed customers recently featured in a popular Netflix documentary, has joined the ranks of major U.S. retailers that are feeling the pinch from a 40-year high in inflation. 
CEO Fran Horowitz told investors on Tuesday that higher prices related to freight and raw material costs were a drag on sales, despite a strong U.S. economy overall. The brand reported a $14.8 million net loss for the first quarter and lowered its sales forecast to zero to 2 percent for the coming quarter, sending shares down 25 percent.
It's becoming a familiar story for retailers. After two years of stimulus-fueled consumer spending, the industry's pandemic-era upswing appears to be winding down, and many companies are pointing the finger squarely at inflation. 
But spending isn't down across the board. Consumer spending jumped 1.1 percent in March, according to the latest Commerce Department data, and while some of those gains came from higher prices, inflation-adjusted spending was still up 0.2 percent. 
Underneath the headline number, however, shoppers' habits are adjusting to a new post-pandemic normal: They're moving away from the higher-margin, non-essential items such as furniture and appliances that pump up retailers' profit margins. 
"We're definitely seeing a pull-back in discretionary spending," said Jonathan Silver, CEO of Affinity Solution, whose firm tracks the transactions of over 100 million consumers on a daily basis. 
Silver added that spending on electronics dropped 2.8 percent year-over-year; spending on furniture and appliances dropped 3.8 percent, and spending on building materials dropped a whopping 11 percent, according to the firm's data. 
This tracks with a recent earnings report from Target and Walmart, both of which pointed to a change in how customers were spending their hard-earned money. 
Walmart said customers were choosing private-label brands (i.e. Walmart-branded items that are usually less expensive than similar products) and moving away from general merchandise, such as clothes, to pay for more expensive gas and groceries. 
Target, meanwhile, said sales of non-essential items were declining, and that inventories were growing as a result, forcing the company to mark down more items.  
For investors in these Fortune 100 companies, the less-than-stellar earnings were a gut punch, but what does this mean for the rest of the economy?
According to Silver, that's actually a difficult question right now. Echoing recent comments from both Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, he pointed out that this economy is especially hard to read. 
"What's interesting is that we're not in a homogeneous economy," he said. "We're seeing very different spending patterns from upper-income versus lower-income folks."
He explained that the spending gap between the two groups is widening. Depending on the category, higher-income groups outspent lower-income groups between 12 to 30 percent, with the gap being smallest on non-discretionary purchases like groceries. 
Bank of America's recent report on credit and debit card spending, which showed an 11 percent year-over-year increase in March, pointed to a similar disparity. 
Lower-income customers (those who make $50,000 per year or less) spend around 30 percent of their income on essential goods and services, while higher-income customers spend closer to 20 percent. 
While spending jumped in March, the bank predicted that higher inflation will eventually push lower-income customers to cut their non-essential purchases. 
At the same time, wages are rising faster for the lower-income bracket but still not enough to keep pace with inflation. Real average hourly earnings decreased 2.6 percent year-over-year in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Abercrombie & Fitch, notably, is known for attracting a higher-income clientele, and the company is hoping customers will tolerate the higher price points. 
"We just finished our eighth quarter of consecutive AUR growth," said Horowitz. "That really tells us that our consumer is responding to our product, our voice, and our experience." 
AUR stands for average unit retail or the average price of a good over a particular period. 
In other words, sales may fall off this quarter, but don't expect Abercrombie & Fitch to cut the price of its $70 hoodies and $60 "lacy button-ups."
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