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The inflation divide: The affluent are splurging, the poorest are retiring

NEW YORK (AP) – Americans at the low end of the income level are once again struggling to make ends meet.

A confluence of factors – the outflow of federal stimulus controls and rising inflation on staples such as gas and food – drives an even bigger wedge between those who have and do not have.

While richer buyers continue to throw out, low-income customers have retreated faster than expected in the last two months. They focus on necessities while turning to cheaper goods or cheaper stores. And they only buy a little at a time.

It is a reversal from a year or so ago when low-income customers, flush with money from the state and driven by wage increases, were able to spend more freely.

Kisha Galvan, a 44-year-old mother of eight children ages 9 to 27, was able to stock up on groceries for the week and buy accessories like clothes and shoes at Walmart for her children last year.

But without the pandemic-related government support and inflation that lasts for almost 40 years, she buys more canned food and is dependent on the local food pantry several times a week instead of once a week.

“I shop meal to meal,”[ads1]; said Rockford, Illinois, a resident who has lived with a disability for the past 15 years. “Before, we did not have to worry about what we would get. We’re just going to get it. “

The deep gap in spending was reflected in the last round of quarterly revenue for retailers. At the high end of the spectrum, Nordstrom and Ralph Lauren reported stronger-than-expected sales as their wealthy customers returned to pre-pandemic routines. Lululemon also reported strong quarterly sales of expensive sportswear.

But at the other end, Walmart’s customers are switching to cheaper lunch meat and half a liter of milk from a whole liter. Kohl’s, a medium-sized department store, said their customers spent less on each visit. And Gap cut its annual economic outlook, specifically citing the strain of inflation in the low-price chain Old Navy.

Both Dollar Tree and Dollar General, which have historically benefited from customers trading in difficult economic times, raised their sales prospects last month. Meanwhile, the low-cost company Big Lots saw sharp sales declines in the last quarter, noting cuts in goods such as furniture.

“We are now in a new chapter where high inflation greatly limits consumers’ ability to make discretionary purchases, especially of high ticket prices,” Big Lot CEO and President Bruce K. Thorn told analysts late last month. “We know that many Americans are now living paychecks to paychecks again.”

The withdrawal among low-income customers has not affected total consumption, which is still up. In April, the government said retail sales outpaced inflation for the fourth month in a row, a reassuring sign that consumers – the main drivers of the US economy – continue to provide significant support and help ease concerns that a recession may be imminent.

But analysts believe even wealthy shoppers could retire if the stock market continues to weaken. Marshal Cohen, senior industry consultant at market research firm The NPD Group Inc., said the stock market is affecting higher-income customers “psychologically” and that more paper losses could cut them.

Expenditure sentiment has changed from October and November last year, when the Fed conducted a survey and found that almost eight out of 10 adults either were well or living comfortably in terms of their finances in 2021, the highest proportion who have said so since. The survey started in 2013. For those earning less than $ 25,000, the proportion who said they did at least well jumped to 53% from 40%.

But inflation has taken a bigger chunk of personal budgets and wiped out some of the wage gains, especially for those who earn less. The national average cost of a gallon of gas, for example, has jumped to $ 4.76 from $ 4.20 a month ago and a painful 56% from a year earlier, according to AAA.

At the Northern Illinois Food Bank, which feeds people in 13 counties including Galvan and her family, the average monthly number of visits grew to more than 400,000 between February and April, from 311,000 in July to September, according to President and CEO Julie Yurko .

Across the economy, median wages rose 6% in April from a year earlier, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. But even though it was the largest increase since 1990, it was still below the inflation rate of 8.3%.

Meanwhile, the poorest fifth of Americans have used up the savings they had built up during the pandemic, in part through stimulus checks, tax deductions for children and higher wages, according to calculations by Jeffries, an investment bank. Americans’ bank accounts. The other four-fifths of American households are still sitting on a large stockpile of extra savings since the pandemic, with much of what is held by the top-fifth.

Inflation plays out differently in companies that cater to customers with varying income levels.

Michelle Gass, CEO of Kohl’s, said that some buyers switch to premium brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, while others go for lower price store labels. Macy’s increased its annual outlook based on the spending habits of the wealthier customers, but customers with a median household income of $ 75,000 and below switch more to their low-cost brand.

Today’s environment makes it difficult for retailers to pass on higher costs. Macy’s, for example, suffered a setback after raising the prices of some casual clothes and home accessories.

“We’re definitely seeing some failure in some of the prices,” Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette recently told analysts on the company’s earnings. “We’ve made adjustments there.”

For Northern Illinois Food Bank – like many food banks – food costs are rising among declining donations.

“Inflation and rising food costs mean the food bank has to make tough choices about our budget,” said Yurko. “What food can we offer consistently, and what food can we only give if they are donated to us?”


Rugaber reported from Washington.


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