Judith Russell

About Judith Russell

Judith Russell is a marketing and strategic planning consultant specializing in the apparel industry, and writes for several apparel and retail trade publications, and is editor of ApparelStrategist.com

Made in USA: Myth or Reality?

American FlagOn a recent afternoon I was stopped in the mall by a foreign tourist looking for American gifts to take back home. All the clothing and accessories in the stores were made elsewhere, she said, so they weren’t really American.

U.S. consumers are starting to feel the same way. Groups with names like Made in the USA Foundation and Buy American are launching advertising and social media initiatives to encourage Americans to buy domestically made goods. They’re reacting to a groundswell of sentiment that blames the sluggish job market on imported consumer products. Large companies are reportedly looking at their product lines to see whether even a little domestic sourcing is feasible. Several fashion startups are touting the fact that their stuff is made in the USA, and in some cases even successfully using crowdfunding to get their businesses off the ground. [Read more...]

FOMO & the Retail Experience

iStock_000018141330SmallA Nation of Smartphone Junkies

It’s a truism that an overwhelming number of people today are addicted to their electronic devices. According to Pew Research, the cell phone has been the most quickly adopted consumer technology in the history of the world. Over 90% of American adults (97% of the under-35 crowd) own them. It is estimated that by the end of this decade, all but the oldest, youngest, poorest and most technophobic among us will own smart phones.

We use our phones as camera, alarm clock, board game, metronome, magazine, map, bank, GPS tracking device, bank, TV, and more. Mostly, though, we use them for their original purpose: to stay connected. We can reach out to friends and family members instantaneously, and know where our kids are at every moment of the day or night. We can keep up on breaking news while hiking in the Adirondacks. We can watch a revolution unfolding in the city center of a Middle Eastern country thousands of miles away. Increasingly, we can do more than one of these things at a time. [Read more...]

The $2 Trillion American Rip-Off

There’s a growing disparity in the way some economic data have moved since the recession. On the one hand we have employment and income figures, which tell the story of a sluggish U.S. recovery with a long way to go to pre-recession prosperity. On the other hand, healthy retail sales and consumer spending have rebounded to, and even surpassed, pre-recession levels.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the population of working-age people has grown by more than 5 million since the beginning of 2008. The labor force has increased by only 1.5 million, and the total number of employed has decreased by 2 million, resulting in a steady decline in the labor force participation rate (see Chart 1).

shadow_economy_chart-1That doesn’t jive with the brisk pace of consumer spending (Chart 2), according to Bernard Baumohl, Chief Economist at Princeton, NJ-based forecasting firm The Economic Outlook Group, who noticed the sudden divergence between total personal consumption expenditures and the labor force participation rates that began during the Great Recession.


The stubbornly high unemployment rate makes even less sense in light of retail sales which, according The Department of Commerce, have been growing by 3-5% per month over the last two years on a 12-month smoothed basis, as shown in Chart 3 below. Sales of durable goods have been particularly strong.

shadow_economy_chart-3This is consistent with an unemployment rate much lower than the current rate of 7.3%, according to Baumohl, who noted: “… Not since the government first released retail sales on a monthly basis have we seen retail sales grow at such a vibrant pace with the unemployment rate so high.”

All this has been going on while, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median household income has been on a steady decline (Chart 4).

shadow_economy_chart-4How are all these unemployed consumers with declining incomes able to keep shopping?

As it turns out, being unemployed doesn’t necessarily mean not working. According to research by Professors Richard Cebula of Jacksonville University and Edgar Feige of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a significant part of the U.S. population participates in the shadow economy, an estimated $2 trillion underground market in the U.S. These folks are doing everything from giving piano lessons to running retail stores. They’re being paid off the books in cash by their employers and/or customers, and either not reporting or underreporting their income.

We’re not just talking about mob bosses or drug dealers here, but about millions of people, some (but by no means all) of them undocumented immigrant workers, with everyday jobs, many in service businesses such as child care, landscaping, and construction. Much of the underreporting of income starts as a way to make ends meet after being laid off, but ends up becoming a lifestyle.

According to Professor Cebula, the underground economy has been around for as long as income tax. Its participants range from hardcore criminals to people whose lousy bookkeeping skills cause them to accidentally underreport their income. His research shows that in the last 10 years, the ratio of unreported and underreported adjusted gross income to reported AGI has ranged between 22% and 24%. Most of the underground income, says Cebula, is earned by people in the lowest income brackets.

To uncover this trend, Cebula and his colleagues simply followed the cash. Despite the proliferation of credit cards, debit cards, smart phone payment apps and bitcoin, currency in circulation with the public totals around $3,000 per capita, hardly the trappings of a cashless society. The Federal Reserve reports almost double-digit increases in currency outstanding over the last few years, to almost $1.2 trillion, compared to $800 billion six years ago (Chart 5).

shadow_economy_chart-5The evidence is everywhere: people pulling out wads of cash in stores to pay for big-ticket items; small stores who “don’t charge you sales tax” if you pay them cash (which means they’re not reporting the revenue to the IRS); soaring demand for prepaid debit cards (which you can buy anonymously and use to pay utility, rent and other bills); the rise in underbanking and nonbanking. According to the FDIC, in 2011 the number of U.S. households with no bank accounts was 8.2%, up from 7.6% in 2009.

Why is the economy’s dirty little secret not getting more air time? Well, for starters, it’s neither politically correct nor expedient to go after the little guy. It makes government look boorish, and after all, many of the people perpetuating this fraud are voters, so politicians have every incentive to turn a blind eye.

A more important factor, however, is that much of the $2 trillion ultimately goes into cash registers, and might have kept the real economy from tanking a few times during the recovery. Which means retailers aren’t exactly unhappy about it.

The U.S. is not the only country experiencing this trend. The shadow economy in Europe will total $3 trillion dollars this year, according to an A.T. Kearney/Visa report. In Italy, where the top personal income tax rate is 45% and tax evasion is practically a national pastime, it represents a massive 21% of GDP.

So is the shadow economy a good thing? Unless you’re a fan of felony tax evasion, of course not. The impact on government revenue is staggering, with an estimated $500 billion in lost federal income tax, money that could close the budget deficit (and possibly even create a surplus), reduce the national debt, help pay for improved infrastructure, and provide public services to people. Many of the people working off the books also collect unemployment or disability, go on Medicaid, and use food stamps, multiplying the fraud.

Of equal concern is the fact that the rapid growth of the underground economy since the recession might be a result of deeper and potentially more damaging trends: an underlying distrust in government; a feeling that regulations are too stringent and complicated; a lack of confidence in financial markets; declining confidence and hope. These feelings weren’t exactly soothed by the most recent government shutdown.

The Economic Outlook Group’s Baumohl feels that although impossible to quantify, the size of the underground economy could be as high as 10% of GDP. If legally accounted for, this $2 trillion would add another 10% to disposable income data in the U.S., and add a whopping 25% to government tax revenue.

Cebula feels that it would be impossible to collect tax on these transactions, however. First, because these transactions leave no paper trail and, in many cases, are done by people that the government doesn’t even know exist, it would be hard to find them. Second, even if uncovered, the taxation would be very short-lived. “In theory, if we were to tax it,” he added, “the behavior would stop, so there would be nothing to tax. And many illegal immigrants would just leave.”

In other words, trying to go after these people wouldn’t necessarily boost tax revenues very much, but would help curtail illegal activity and reduce the illegal immigration problem? Sounds like a step in the right direction.

However, Cebula’s argument fails to take into account the fact that plenty of the underreporting is done by businesses and households who, rather than get caught and pay penalties, might decided to improve their reporting record. That includes the dog groomer or handyman who doesn’t charge you tax if you “make the check out to cash.” He’s not going to turn away business; he’ll just do more of his business on the books. Maybe his prices will go up a bit in the short run, but they’ll eventually settle at what the market will bear, or he’ll find another line of work. So, theoretically, some of the tax gap will be at least partially recouped.

People who work off the books are hurting themselves in both the short and long terms. They’re not paying into Social Security or receiving health benefits. They can’t report abusive employers to authorities. They don’t participate in financial markets to build up investment income nest eggs. This is ultimately a drag on economic growth, which will hurt the retail industry.

The underground economy disfavors law-abiding people and shifts liabilities to future generations. Allowing businesses to get away with cheating makes it harder for legitimate ones to compete. The reduction in workforce participation puts upward pressure on labor costs, and places honest retailers, who collect and remit sales tax and abide by employment laws, at a price disadvantage.

The IRS claims to lack the resources to go after the tax cheats, which only makes the problem worse. When there are fewer police cars on the roads, more people speed. But how could it not be cost-effective to enforce compliance? When such a huge amount of owed taxes is not being paid, it shouldn’t take long for an IRS agent making $60,000 a year to earn the agency back his salary. We can’t afford to not force compliance. If successful, it might eventually lead to lower income tax rates for all which, as we know from history, tends to stimulate economic growth.

We need fewer regulations and red tape for businesses and households who employ people, and better enforcement of (simpler) tax laws. We need politicians to worry less about getting re-elected, and more about increasing government efficiency. And we need a level playing field that rewards success and honesty, punishes criminals, and helps people who really need help. Without these things, neither the free market nor democracy works.

What’s Wrong With This Employment Picture?

Last week’s employment data looked pretty rosy. The economy added 175,000 new jobs in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than many economy-watchers and investors anticipated, but not so many that the Fed might be tempted to tighten credit. Retail jobs comprised a sizable chunk of the increase, a net gain of 28,000, indicating an underlying bullishness on the part of retailers about consumer spending, since May is not typically a big hiring month for stores.

Looking behind the numbers, however, particularly in light of other recent economic data, a murkier picture emerges.

Job Growth is Slow

First, despite May’s jump, overall job growth has been painfully slow for the past year, ranging somewhere between 1.5% and 1.7% per month on a 12-month smoothed basis, as the chart below shows.

Click to enlarge chart

Click to enlarge chart

 The unemployment rate, though close to a four-and-a-half year low, actually increased in May, from 7.5% to 7.6%, as news of the improving job situation caused many of the unemployed who had given up looking to reenter the job-hunting fray.

Click to enlarge chart

Click to enlarge chart

And, as is usually the case this time of year, over a million newly-minted college graduates were thrust kicking and screaming into the real world (or at least back to their old bedroom at Mom and Dad’s). This year’s crop carried record loads of student debt.

New Jobs are Low-Level

Yet another problem is that the jobs that are being created are not exactly the most sought-after, and tend to earn less than those eliminated during the recession, a phenomenon that shows no sign of reversing itself any time soon.

For example, restaurants and bars added a whopping 38,000 jobs in May, evidence that people have finally started to eat out more, usually a sign of an improving economy.  However, these jobs tend to pay less than minimum wage – certainly not enough to eat out very often!

Professional and business services added a lot of jobs, too. But despite the media cacophony about a surge in tech and other math-and-science-related fields, only 5,000 jobs were in computer systems, and another 6,000 in engineering – hardly enough to satisfy the hundreds of thousands of recent IT and engineering graduates. The greatest number of new jobs in the professional services sector – 26,000, to be exact, was in the not-so-lofty temporary office help area.

Last month, one in every six new jobs was in retail. In fact, as the chart above shows, retail job growth has been outpacing that of total employment in the US since late 2012. However, most of these jobs are hourly jobs at the store level, and pay at or slightly above minimum wage.

Sluggish Income Growth

Income growth has been sluggish for the past several months, further evidence of the beating paychecks are taking, which means that the rampant price-and value-consciousness will persist for a while, and will continue to wield a huge influence on consumer behavior and retail strategy.

Click to enlarge chart

Click to enlarge chart

Stagnant Spending

Finally, consumer spending is nothing to get excited about. Although sales of durables like automobiles and furniture have been brisk, spending on nondurables like food, clothing and personal care items has slowed in recent months. Much of the slowdown is due to lower prices on food and gas, but nonetheless threatens to intensify the share wars taking place at retail.

Click to enlarge chart

Click to enlarge chart

It’s probably worthwhile to point out that while all this hiring was taking place, the Dow and S&P each continued their upward climbs, bringing year-to-date stock market gains to over 15% and reinforcing the wealth effect among the high-income folks. This has been fueling growth in luxury retailing and intensifying the polarization between haves and have-nots. How long this will last depends in large part on the financial markets. A big stock market correction could put the brakes on luxury spending.

Who’s Hiring At Retail?

Retailers, anxious to gain whatever share they can in this low-growth market, are making sure they are sufficiently staffed. General merchandise stores, including variety and the very popular dollar stores, have added the most jobs so far this year, at 44,000, as shown in the chart below, almost half the 93,000 new retail jobs. Dollar stores have been expanding their brick-and-mortar footprint faster than other channels.

Department stores have added 22,000 jobs, both in-store to provide improved service, and at the corporate level to fill expanding e-commerce and social media departments. Specialty apparel stores, many of whom are closing underperforming doors, have sustained a net loss of 17,000 jobs so far this year.

Click to enlarge chart

Click to enlarge chart

Amid all the uncertainty, though, the tough job market has been a windfall for retailers in one key way. These companies have access today to some of the most educated, innovative, tech-savvy and creative talent ever. Retailers should identify the high-potential employees early in their careers, and begin grooming them to be the next generation of industry leaders.

Stagnant Paychecks Slow Consumer Spending

iStock_000007732207XSmallLower Prices on Food and Energy Buoy Fashion Products

You know those colorful Vikings in the Capital One credit card commercials who ask “What’s in your wallet?” Well, maybe they’re asking the wrong question.

Forget QE3, the wealth effect from rising stock prices, and fears of sequestration. The key factor in determining consumer spending, that all-important measure that comprises a whopping 70% of GDP growth, is paycheck size. It’s about how much is in consumers’ wallets. And with paychecks essentially stagnant, it could come as no surprise that economic growth is pathetic, too. [Read more...]

Stores Blame Cold Weather, Early Easter for Season’s Slow Start

March2013RetSalesRetailing is a lot like professional sports. Both are highly competitive, both require a combination of talent and luck, and both involve big money.

And sometimes, there’s so much drama taking place off the playing field that it’s hard to remember there’s a real game taking place on it.

No matter how interesting we find all the “what if” questions surrounding JCPenney, or the tussle between Martha and Macy’s, or the Lululemon yoga pant recall, it’s what’s going on at the cash registers in the stores – be they brick-and-mortar or online – that determines the success of the industry and, in turn, the U.S. economy. Consumer spending – people shelling out money for goods and services – accounts for 70% of economic growth, and spending at retail just isn’t growing very quickly these days, for a variety of reasons. [Read more...]

Walmart’s Hire-a-Vet Program: Patriotic Gesture? Or Good for Walmart?

American veterans returning from war have had a history of finding employment at Fortune 10 companies. After the Korean War they got engineering and sales jobs at IBM and Texaco. After Vietnam they became production technicians and manufacturing coordinators at Dupont and Monsanto.

Those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will be working at Walmart. Now that’s what I call economic progress.

At January’s National Retail Federation Convention in New York, CEO and President Bill Simon announced the Bentonville behemoth’s pledge to hire any returning veteran who wants a job, in a program it will kick off on (when else?) Memorial Day. It will result in 100,000 jobs for returning military personnel over the next five years.

This is a wonderfully patriotic gesture, and a great opportunity for all those returning vets, right? Or is it? [Read more...]

“Paycheck Shock” Reins in January Sales

Bite-In-Pay-CheckMore to Come From The Beltway?

It’s President’s week, so instead of staying in Washington to work out a compromise that would avoid huge mandatory budget cuts, Congress has left town for recess. Little wonder, then, that consumers have been in a less-than-freespending mood of late. Last month, for example, found them more bargain-hungry than ever, particularly after seeing the big bite new taxes took out of their paychecks.

January retail sales rose by a little over 4.4% on a 12-month smoothed basis, to a seasonally adjusted $4.9 trillion. Growth was slightly below that of the prior two months.

Much of the improvement was due to a surge in auto sales. Detroit has benefitted from record numbers of people finally breaking down, so to speak, and replacing their 10-year-old vehicles. Excluding autos, total retail sales increased by only 3.1% in January. [Read more...]

Nervous Consumers Go to the Mattresses

Will Clouds Lift in 2013?

Last month, when the Commerce Department released its report on December 2012 personal income, spending and savings, there was barely a mention of it in the usual financial corners – which didn’t faze me much, since these figures are usually nothing to write home about.

After looking at the numbers, however, I did something uncharacteristic: a double-take.

Personal income rose by a whopping 7%, its biggest monthly jump in six years. Great news for retailers, who were offering tempting Holiday price promotions everywhere you looked, right? [Read more...]

Are Apparel Retailers Shooting Themselves in the Footprint?

The Shift To E-Commerce May Be Too Much, Too Soon

On a recent afternoon I spent 20 minutes doing errands that a year or two ago would have taken me about eight hours to do.

Instead of jumping into my SUV and taking multiple trips to various big box and discount stores in my town, I strolled into my home office, powered up my trusty PC, and “went to town” in a different way. With a few clicks of a mouse I bought two or three carloads’ worth of stuff ranging from garden tools and patio furniture to office supplies and groceries.

Most of my purchases were made on pure-play e-commerce sites. Comparison shopping helped me get very good prices and free delivery. One category of merchandise failed to figure into my flurry of e-consumerism, however: I did not buy a single stitch of clothing. I am one of those people who prefer to shop for clothes in brick-and-mortar stores. I need to see, feel and try on clothes before I buy them to make sure they fit, look good and meet my quality standards. I do not trust computer monitors to accurately display important details like fabric, color, drape or weight.

It turns out I am not alone in this. According to e-commerce intelligence firm eMarketing, total U.S. e-commerce sales rose to $200 billion last year, or 7% of the total retail business. It is estimated that the portion of total apparel sales purchased online is much smaller—by some estimates only 5%. Making matters worse, returns of online apparel sales are as high as 40% for some retailers.

Online apparel sales, though growing, remain a relatively small part of the business because consumers need to touch, see and try on. Sucharita Mulpuru, analyst with technology powerhouse Forrester Research, feels that “the in-store experience remains a critical part of the buying process for discretionary items like apparel.” [Read more...]

Why Same Store Sales Don’t Matter

With all due respect to the analysts, journalists and consultants who make a living keeping track of all the companies that comprise the retail industry, it has been my opinion for some time now that the popular measures reported on the first Thursday of every month known as comparable store sales, which so many of us spend at least a day per month thinking and talking about, are like George Clooney’s S.A.T. scores. They just don’t matter.

Only about 20 retail companies – a small minority of the publicly-held merchants who sell discretionary consumer products – report their total and same-store sales on a monthly basis today. This is a sharp decline from 5 years ago, when virtually all publicly-held retailers reported.

Many of them stopped reporting because it was “causing too much volatility in stock prices.” (I guess we should thank them all for reducing the volatility in the stock market.) Others claimed it was “causing management to focus too much on the short term and not enough on longer term initiatives.” Whew. Thank goodness they nipped that problem in the bud, too.

To really grasp how insignificant same-store sales figures have become, let’s consider for a moment the companies who no longer report. Walmart, the largest retailer in the country, representing half of all retail sales, stopped reporting in early 2009, after the news got so bad month after month that someone in Bentonville finally figured out they were important enough to not have to share it anymore. Quickly following Walmart’s lead were Sears, most of the regional discounters, and the dollar stores.

Stealth giant Amazon never did report same-store sales. I guess it’s because they don’t have stores. But they certainly do a lot of sales – sales that used to be done by stores.

Only one warehouse club, Costco, still reports on a monthly basis. Big box retailers Best Buy and Bed Bath and Beyond do not. In the women’s specialty apparel sector, we know how Gap, Limited Brands, and Wet Seal are doing, and that’s about it. About the other major players, like Ann Taylor, Talbots, Chicos, Express, Urban Outfitters, Dress Barn, Charlotte Russe, Charming Shoppes, Christopher & Banks, New York & Co. – we learn nothing.

And it’s not just the women’s merchants who are remaining mum. There’s no news from Men’s Wearhouse, Joseph A. Banks, or Casual Male, either. Throw in Children’s Place, Abercrombie, American Eagle, American Apparel and Aeropostale to that list while you’re at it. The only teen store still reporting is Kearney, Nebraska-based Buckle, whose monthly performance has been so good for so many years they can hardly contain themselves when the first of the month rolls around.

So what are we left with? The department stores, off-pricers, one discounter (Target) and one luxury store (Saks). Big stores, to be sure, but representing less than a third of retail sales, making it impossible to glean from the data whether the market’s growing or shrinking, or which retailer or channel is gaining share from another.

Complicating the situation even further is the fact that some of the big stores, like Macy’s, Penney and Nordstrom, have started to include their e-commerce sales in same-store sales. (Huh?) With online sales growing by double digits, all this does is introduce even more confusion and insignificance to the measure.

I have therefore concluded that those companies who report monthly same-store sales should just stop. Macy’s, Gap, Target, TJX and friends should just post their comps every quarter like the rest of the market does. At least we’ll have something meaningful to look at, especially considering the profitability figures that come along for the ride. It would also give us all an extra day per month – if not more – to do other things, like focus on longer term initiatives.

Or spend more time watching George Clooney movies.

Warnaco in Brief

Warnaco Sales

Click chart to see full-sized

Warnaco Inc. (WRC) was founded in the late 1800s when two brothers, New York physicians Lucien and Ira Warner, became concerned about injuries and health problems suffered by women who wore the constricting undergarments of the day. They developed a corset that was softer and more flexible than the models then on the market, and a new industry was born. The Warner Brothers Corporation would later expand into brassieres, corselets and more. In the late Fifties Warner’s worked with DuPont (DFT) and its new Spandex fiber, Lycra, launching it into the next generation of intimate apparel powerhouses.

The Business Today

Many years, acquisitions, a leveraged buyout, and a bankruptcy later, Warnaco’s intimate apparel business now represents only about a third of total company sales, primarily through its Calvin Klein Underwear, Warner’s and Olga brands. The swimwear business, 11% of sales, down from almost 27% in 2004, is dominated by Speedo, but is also home to the Calvin Klein swimwear brand.

[Read more...]