Nordstrom's plunging sales confirm a troubling new trend among wealthy shoppers
Comparable sales for Nordstrom's full-price businesses fell 5.4%, including a 7.7% drop at its department stores and a lower-than-expected 3% increase in online sales - both marking the worst results since 2009, according to analysts.
"Notably, this shortfall was entirely driven by lower trips/transactions," Morgan Stanley analysts wrote in a note ominously titled "High-End Recession."The declines confirm a terrifying new reality for high-end retailers: Wealthy shoppers are reining in spending and - along with the rest of American consumers - refusing to pay full price for anything.
While sales are plunging in Nordstrom's full-price business, comparable sales for the company's off-price brands, including Nordstrom Rack - which sells steeply discounting clothes and accessories - grew 4.6%.
Morgan Stanley analysts said the "surprising" bifurcation between Nordstrom's low-end and high-end businesses should be a warning sign for all luxury retailers.
"We think retailers exposed to the high-end consumer are most at risk to a further sales step-down in 2016," the analysts wrote.
The company's inventory levels (which increased 5.4% in the first quarter following a 12% increase in the fourth quarter) show that Nordstrom has been having a hard time clearing its shelves, and is relying on promotions to sell the merchandise.That can be a risky strategy, particularly for a high-end retailer, because too many promotions can cheapen the brand.
Heavy discounting "will ultimately drag everything down with it, including brand image, potentially quality and essentially the value of all things," retail expert Robin Lewis writes on The Robin Report.
But even steep discounts aren't attracting customers like they have in the past.
Restoration Hardware, which also caters to high-end customers, has said that discounts of 20% to 75% off everything in the store have been failing to boost sales as much as in previous years.
"Our attempt to drive incremental revenue through increased promotional activity in the fourth quarter was less successful than in prior periods, signaling a further pullback by the high-end consumer," Restoration Hardware CEO Gary Friedman wrote in a letter to shareholders in March.
Friedman said Restoration Hardware's customers have been reining in spending in part because of volatility in the stock market.
"Our sense is the increased volatility in the US stock markets, especially the extreme conditions in January, which is historically our biggest month of the quarter for furniture sales, contributed to our performance," Friedman wrote after the company reported preliminary fourth-quarter earnings that fell short of analyst expectations.
Customers are also shifting more spending to big-ticket items, such as cars and houses, while splurging less on clothes, shoes, and other fashion items, according to analysts."The shift we have seen over the past several years in which consumers have chosen to spend on 'big ticket' merchandise (cars, homes and home renovations, electronics and smartphones) and experiences seem particularly apparent given the results at Nordstrom," Stifel analysts wrote in a recent note.
Nordstrom says that it's now going to focus on creating a "more efficient and agile organization."
"Our first quarter results were impacted by lower than expected sales. In response we have made further adjustments to our inventory and expense plans," Blake Nordstrom, co-president of Nordstrom, said in a statement."As the pace of change in retail continues to accelerate, we remain committed to serving customers by taking steps that will continue to meet their expectations while driving profitable growth."
Along with Nordstrom, within the last year Macy's, J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus, and Target have said that they would cut jobs at headquarters.