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Americans are buying less as many brace to be 'strapped for cash'

Many retailers have acknowledged that a prolonged war in Ukraine could hurt shopper confidence as supply shortages worsen.

NEW YORK — After beginning the year in a buying mood, Americans slowed their spending in February on gadgets, home furnishings and other discretionary items as higher prices for food, gasoline, and shelter are taking a bigger bite out of their wallet.

Retail sales increased 0.3% after registering a revised 4.9% jump from December to January, fueled by wage gains, solid hiring and more money in banking accounts, according to the Commerce Department. January's increase was the biggest jump in spending since last March, when American households received a final federal stimulus check of $1,400.

Business at furniture and home furnishing stores fell 1% in February, while sales at consumer electronics and appliance stores slipped 0.6%. General merchandise stores saw business down 0.2%, while online sales fell 3.7%. Restaurant sales rose 2.5% as shoppers shift more of their spending to services as the threat of COVID-19 fades.

And there are new pressures that could send prices even higher, namely the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Most Western companies including retailers like Nike, fast-fashion retailer H&M, and coat maker Canada Goose have suspended sales in Russia after Russia sent tank columns toward the capital of Kyiv and heavily shelled the southern seaport of Mariupol and other urban centers.

Many retailers are bracing for how the war will worsen supply shortages, with reports already surfacing of limited supplies of wheat, vegetable oils, and electronic components like chips that will likely send prices higher. In addition to the Russian invasion, rising COVID-19 cases and renewed restrictions in China could intensify supply chain issues.

“The problem is that as households get more and more squeezed on essentials, there is less budget available for discretionary spending,” said Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData Retail. “True, there is an elevated buffer of savings which consumers can call upon to fund their consumption, but this is a short-term fix in an environment where inflation is becoming a persistent problem."

Saunders noted that such persistent inflation is dangerous for retailers because it will mean shoppers will once again consolidate their spending and spread it to just a few players, reversing the trend where many retailers in the last year or so saw their sales increase. Walmart executives told analysts in February that the chain often benefits during periods of inflation like this one where, middle-income families, lower middle-income families and even wealthier families become more price sensitive.

And many retailers have acknowledged that a prolonged war could hurt shopper confidence.

“I think we’re prepared that there’s going to be an environment of a lot of uncertainty," Kohl's CEO Michelle Gass told analysts during its earnings call in response to a question about how the war could affect its business. “So like everyone, we’ll stay close. We'll be responsive."

David Bassuk, global co-leader of AlixPartners’ retail practice, said shoppers will be “strapped for cash" because of soaring prices at the grocery store and elsewhere, and retailers of discretionary items will have to offer big discounts to bring in customers.

Earlier this month, the Labor Department reported that consumer inflation, propelled by surging costs for gas, food and housing, jumped 7.9% over the past year, the sharpest spike since 1982. That 12-month period ended in February, meaning it does not include most of the oil and gas price increases that followed the start of Russia's war on Feb. 24.

Crude and natural gas have spiked about 30% this year, though energy futures did retreat this week.

In a note published on Wednesday, Lydia Boussour, lead U.S. Economist at Oxford Economics, said that surging prices on essentials like gas and food are straining shoppers' budgets. But she also noted that wage gains and ample excess savings should sustain consumer spending in the months ahead.

Employers added a robust 678,000 jobs in February, the largest monthly total since July, the Labor Department reported earlier this month. The unemployment rate dropped to 3.8% from 4% in January, extending a sharp decline in joblessness to its lowest level since before the pandemic erupted two years ago.

In fact, Walmart announced on Wednesday it plans to hire more than 50,000 U.S. workers during its current fiscal quarter to a variety of stores, clubs, supply chain and corporate tech roles. Walmart said its starting wage is now up to as high as $30 an hour for select roles in certain markets.

Given such an uncertain environment, National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, forecast that growth in U.S. retail sales this year will slow to between 6% and 8% from the record-breaking 14% annual growth rate in 2021. The group cited surging inflation, tightening of monetary policy and less fiscal stimulus. Last year's figure marked the highest growth rate in more than 20 years. Still, this year’s projection is well above the 10-year, pre-pandemic growth rate of 3.7%.

The retail report released Wednesday covers only about a third of overall consumer spending and doesn’t include services such as haircuts, hotel stays and plane tickets.

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AP Economics Writer Chris Rugaber in Washington contributed to this report.

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