The 'resilient consumer' narrative is finally changing

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Consumers stayed strong after quarter upon quarter of inflation. But finally, the steadfast swipe-the-card resilience is giving way to discretion. These days, shoppers at big box retailers are moderating their spending, becoming more selective, avoiding big-ticket items, and delaying purchases.

In earnings calls this week, executives sketched portraits of a more discerning American consumer, worn down by higher costs and coping with the anxieties of mounting credit card debt and dwindling savings.

Americans are still shelling out, retailers insist, but sticking more to necessities and shrinking the boundaries of discretionary spending.

“Our research indicates that themes like uncertainty, caution, managing my time and budget, and focusing on essentials while still finding ways to celebrate are all top of mind,” said Target (TGT) CEO Brian Cornell during its earnings call on Wednesday.

The tenacity that once defined the American consumer is giving way to stretching budgets and weighing trade-offs. Customers that used to buy new sweatshirts and jeans at the end of summer ahead of the cold-weather months are waiting until plunging temperatures force them to make the purchase, Cornell said.

The company’s net sales fell more than 4% compared to the same period last year, with the number of transactions and the average check size declining for the quarter.

The pressures facing consumers as they postpone spending plans or wait for their next paycheck isn’t unique to Target, which has been grappling with its own corporate issues.

Retail sales fell 0.1% in October from the prior month, according to new data from the Commerce Department, notching the first monthly decline since March. Of the businesses that lost ground, furniture and home furnishing stores dropped the most, losing 2%.

Meanwhile, health and personal care stores enjoyed the biggest sales gains, growing 1.1%, highlighting the bout of more careful spending and the types of goods households are choosing to pull back from.

Home Depot (HD) told a similar story earlier this week.

“This year reflects a period of moderation,” said CEO Ted Decker during a call with investors. He noted the company “saw continued customer engagement with smaller projects, and experienced pressure in certain big-ticket, discretionary categories.”

Sales decreased 3% year over year, the company said, as foot traffic dropped 2.4%, and the average ticket fell a slight 0.3%.

Even Walmart (WMT), which reported boosted sales on Thursday, offered a cautious outlook for the months ahead, as consumers moderate their spending on things like clothing, home decor, and toys.

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“While it is somewhat encouraging to see that spending did not fall off a cliff in October, the pause is likely a sign of further weakness to come,” said Thomas Simons, an economist at Jefferies, in a research note earlier this week after the retail sales report.

A weakened consumer can still be strong enough for corporate earnings, especially if companies can beat lowered expectations. Not losing as much as people thought is its own kind of victory — one that Wall Street revels in.

But selective shopping and budget stretching can only take the economy so far. Even resilience has limits.

Hamza Shaban is a reporter for Yahoo Finance covering markets and the economy. Follow Hamza on Twitter @hshaban.

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