Home » Never Ending Revenge Spending—‘What Is the New Norm?’

Never Ending Revenge Spending—‘What Is the New Norm?’

Americans are continuing to spend, despite anxiety over the economy, making companies question their expectations of consumer spending habits during slower economic growth.

Shoppers are stretched, but discretionary spending isn’t abating as quickly as some finance chiefs and economists expected—a phenomenon economists and finance chiefs have coined “revenge” and even “doom” spending. And it has CFOs across industries—from travel to clothing, restaurants and consumer packaged goods—working to figure out what the impact is on balance sheets.

Americans—for now—remain resilient and are holding on to some nice-to-have experiences and habits, and are willing to even spend on small and large extravagances, even while grocery prices soar, pandemic-era savings dwindle and credit is more expensive.  

“This long-anticipated slowdown that economists and business leaders have been anticipating just isn’t materializing yet,” said James Knightley, chief international economist at financial services provider ING. “And I think it’s a signal that consumers are wanting to maintain their lifestyles as long as they can.”

The pandemic changed what motivated people to spend. Shoppers emerging from the pandemic with money to burn were eager to splurge, and this so-called revenge spending drove people to Taylor Swift and other concerts and led them to take trips and buy designer handbags. This boosted some companies’ profits as living in the moment took priority over saving for a home or rainy day. 

Economists are starting to see some signs of consumers pulling back, with U.S. retail sales rising a seasonally adjusted 0.6% in February compared with a month earlier, recent Commerce Department data shows, which wasn’t as robust as some were hoping.  

American consumers continue looking for ways to treat themselves, but not all the time. They are “selective splurging,” said David Marberger, chief financial officer at packaged-food maker Conagra Brands. Shoppers are finding ways to offset spending on experiences and being out, which has resulted in some adjustments to manage overall spending on food purchases at grocery stores, he said in January. 

“They are traveling, they are still eating out more than maybe what we’ve seen historically when people’s balance sheets are tight, and so there’s a different behavior there,” Marberger said. He added: “You look at our business, the food industry, the big question for us and focus is, how is the spending behavior changing relative to what we’re used to historically?” 

The CFO expects consumers will at some point cut back on experience spending, but the company isn’t budgeting or forecasting for that. Conagra is accelerating advertising investment by 20% in the second half of its fiscal year compared with what the company spent in the first six months to entice shoppers to spend on its brands, which include Hunt’s ketchup, Healthy Choice frozen meals and Slim Jim meat sticks. 

Some shoppers are doing what they can—running down their savings and spending on credit—to keep up their lifestyles, ING’s Knightley said, and have written off the possibility of buying a home or saving for retirement.

“Revenge spending, by some reports, has turned into ‘doom spending,’” he said. “Therefore, whatever money comes in gets spent, and you enjoy it.” 

Michele Allen, CFO at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, agrees that consumers are still taking trips. And it’s more than revenge travel, Allen said, explaining that what travelers are doing now is more intentional.

“It’s not just, get me out of New Jersey or get me into warm weather or get me out of this house, it’s like, ‘What am I looking for?’” said Allen, adding that travelers are setting out for specific events like concerts or the solar eclipse next month. 

Around 2.6 million passengers went through airport security on March 25, up around 9% from a year earlier, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration. Wyndham, which primarily caters to budget-conscious consumers on the road for leisure or extended work trips with brands including Travelodge, Days Inn and La Quinta, is anticipating travel will continue and has 240,000 rooms in its global development pipeline.

The company is spending more and thinking differently about where, when and how to invest media dollars in response to intentional travel, Allen said. In locations where there is increased demand for specific events, for instance, spending should similarly go up, she said. Wyndham increased spending by 6% in the first quarter of this year compared with a year earlier.

Consumers also continue eating out, though that has declined some. U.S. restaurant dining numbers are down 5% for the week ended March 23 compared with a year earlier, according to data from OpenTable.

Burrito chain Chipotle Mexican Grill reported 7.4% transaction growth for the quarter ended Dec. 31—and consumers are spending more, Chief Financial Officer Jack Hartung said. “We’re not seeing people that are adding less to their check,” Hartung said. “They’re not skipping the chips and guacamole; they’re not skipping the quesadilla on the side or the chips and salsa.” 

Some shoppers are searching for value, but their willingness to buy apparel such as shirts, dresses and pants is holding up longer than anticipated, Ralph Lauren CFO Jane Nielsen said. “They’re willing to make investments, be that an investment in experience or be that an investment in their apparel or wardrobe.”

Ralph Lauren has focused on inventory, which globally was down 15% in the latest quarter from a year earlier, and is managing the company’s buys to focus on its “core,” iconic pieces such as jackets, vests and certain sweaters, said Nielsen, who is also chief operating officer. These are the more “timeless” purchases, she said, rather than end-of-season, need to liquidate items. And if purchasing pressure from consumers does emerge, Ralph Lauren is ready to pull back on the replenishing cycle. 

Rural lifestyle retail chain Tractor Supply CFO Kurt Barton anticipates that shoppers will continue spending on experiences. This is factored into the company’s expectations for 2024 as the finance chief watches for what typical spending patterns will look like in the coming quarters. The retailer benefited during the pandemic as shoppers spent more on do-it-yourself and home improvements. That has since shifted, with consumers still spending on items they need, like animal feed, but pulling back some on larger-ticket discretionary items as they prioritize experiences such as travel, entertainment and dining out. 

“The question becomes, ‘What is the new norm?’” the CFO said. “That’s one of the biggest uncertainties.” 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *