Consumers shopped more online in the pandemic, and changed what they bought. Unable to eat out or travel, and with both school and work going remote, they splurged more on things for the home such as furniture and computers. Several rounds of federal stimulus amplified that spending spree.
Goods—including nondurable goods such as food and clothing, and durable goods such as cars and appliances—averaged 31% of total personal consumption in the two years before the pandemic. That soared to 36% in March and April 2021, shortly before Covid-19 vaccines became widely available. The share has been dropping since, to 34% in December. Consumer spending on goods fell that month for the second month in a row, according to the Commerce Department, while spending on services increased slightly.
James Knightley, chief international economist at ING, said consumers are starting this year with “a combination of general fatigue of buying physical things and Omicron reducing the ability to spend on services.”
After bingeing on goods earlier in the pandemic, consumers are taking a breather. What’s more, spending on goods has been hit by supply-chain constraints, rising prices and dwindling government stimulus funds. As warmer springtime weather comes to much of the country and falling infection rates help people feel more comfortable socializing in-person, pent-up demand for services such as travel and dining should recover, said Robert Frick, corporate economist with Navy Federal Credit Union.
“If the Omicron wave continues to decline and there’s no follow-up strain, I do think we’re going to see a shift to a more normal breakdown in spending on goods and services,” he said.
That could be important for the inflation outlook. Strong demand for goods coupled with disruptions to their supply have fueled inflation, sending it to a 39-year high of 7% in December. Prices for goods such as furniture and appliances rose 10.7% in December from a year earlier, while services inflation for costs such as rent and airline fares was up a more moderate 3.7%. If consumer spending rotates back to services from goods, some of that upward pressure on goods prices should dissipate.
Economists caution that 2022 is off to a weak start. The Omicron wave hurt consumer spending and job growth in December, trends that likely continued through January as cases of the Covid-19 variant peaked. Real-time data show that restaurant bookings and travel remained depressed in January, suggesting the shift toward services away from goods may have paused in January.
But looking ahead, a strong labor market and rising wages mean many U.S. consumers are starting 2022 with robust income prospects that are likely to help fuel the services recovery this year. “All the indications are that it will be a big year for travel,” said Visa Inc. Chief Financial Officer Vasant Prabhu. “We see the shift to services continuing to gather momentum.”
Airlines were hit hard by the Omicron variant, with travelers scrapping holiday trips and staff absenteeism prompting flight cancellations over the holidays. Still, executives are optimistic about a speedy recovery.
“The GDP growth we’re seeing now, the excess customer savings, customer spend in other categories and even things like New York City rents snapping back pretty quickly, all seem to indicate real strength for the customer and pent-up demand that wasn’t there in the past,” David Fintzen, an executive at New York-based JetBlue Airways Corp. said during an earnings call last week.
One potential roadblock to higher spending in 2022 is inflation, as shortages of supplies and workers are pushing up prices and wages at levels that may become unaffordable to some households. Some consumers are forgoing purchases because of sticker shock. “We will not buy a used car at the prices we’re seeing now, it’s ridiculous,” said Cory Randall, controller at a cattle company in Amarillo, Texas, who had been considering a secondhand compact car purchase as his son recently turned 16.
Mr. Randall isn’t alone. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s most recent Survey of Consumer Expectations found the share of households that made a large purchase over the past four months decreased to 58% in December from 63% in August. Households reported that they were less likely to make a large purchase over the next four months—like on a vacation, home repairs, home appliances, furniture and vehicles—than in the prior survey.
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