Everybody has their favorite so called-called ‘bellwether’ company, the one that tells you where the economy is going if you scan its fortunes. A lot of people like Federal Express, since tracking shipments tells you a lot about the level of activity. Another favorite is Caterpillar, since it gives you a guide to business spending. Me? I follow lots of others, but I’ll take Walmart to give me a reading on overall economic health.
Oh, I know you hate Walmart. It is cruel to its suppliers, and it destroys sweet little downtowns that would have looked exactly like Bedford Falls from It’s a Wonderful Life otherwise. And they treat their employees cruelly, and their organic food really isn’t. Hmm. Some or all the criticisms that Walmart faces might be true, but I think the reality is a little more basic: Walmart is a place where those on a budget (whatever their level of income) shop. (And I don’t want to shock any of you by saying this, but I shop there too. My favorite buy? The same kind of ritzy green tea–Zen by Tazo–that I get at Starbucks, at a much more reasonable price than I can get it elsewhere).
Whatever your feelings about Walmart, though, you have to take note when the company’s CEO says “We expect this holiday season to be highly competitive”, as he did on a recent conference call with investors. They must: the company just announced that rather than providing their usual ‘Black Friday’ (the day after U.S. Thanksgiving) day of sales, they will spread out the specials over five days, starting Thanksgiving evening and following through to the following Monday. It is a PR move more than anything, since as this story from the New Yorker details, the company actual offers prices as low or lower than they do on Black Friday at other times of the year. That the company feels so desperate to get the PR—and presumably the accompanying traffic—is telling, however.
My interpretation of things is simple: the U.S. economy is not doing that great.
Yes, I know, the employment reports in recent months have shown a discernible improvement. The gain in jobs over the past few months has been at its most solid in eight years, while the unemployment rate is the lowest in has been since mid-2008. Honestly, it has been very encouraging, enough so that the U.S. Federal Reserve has now announced plans to ditch its more-suitable-for-a-depression bond-buying program, which has been around since 2008 and has had the aim of keeping market interest rates low.
So what gives? It could be that Walmart’s customers (the bulk of whom are in lower income groups) are not feeling the good times. It could be that a culture of thrift is still presiding. It could just be about retail competition, and the fact that a lot of sales are now on the internet and that Walmart has not yet fully developed that market. And it could be a mix of things.
Personally, I would point out one more number on the labor force: at 62.8 percent, the portion of the U.S. working age population that is working or looking for work is at close to its lowest in decades. That means there are lot of people who have retired (many not be choice), or who are taking ‘breaks’ to go to school, take care of kids, or simply choose to not work. That is not a positivie signal for spending.
What I see though, is the America’s biggest retailer is not high-fiving about the current economy and the supposed return to good times. Maybe they just don’t get it, but my guess is that they do.