retail watch | May 19, 2022 |
For retailers, the home boom is over

For the past two years, consumers looking for home furnishings products have shopped until they dropped. Over the past 60 days, it has seemed like it finally happened: They dropped.

Numbers from some of America’s largest home retailers—Walmart, Target, Home Depot and Lowe’s—all clearly illustrated that the feeding frenzy of the pandemic era ground to a halt in late winter. While all but Lowe’s showed modest increases on their top lines, it appears most of the gains were driven by inflation-stoked higher prices and not necessarily more purchasing activity. Home Depot, for instance, reported an 8 percent drop in customer transactions; its increase in sales was driven by higher-ticket totals from fewer customers.

A long list of increased costs—fuel, transportation and labor chief among them—meant that the bottom line for all four big-box retailers took significant hits. The resulting crashes of their stock prices through midweek only served to confirm that the bloom is most certainly off the home retail rose for the time being.

This comes as vendors who sell to these retailers are almost uniformly saying (off the record, at least) that they are seeing orders for the second half of the year canceled, delayed or otherwise not being placed—resulting in excessive levels of inventory piling up with no buyers in sight after two years spent yearning for more stock.

It wasn’t just the mass merchants who are feeling the sting of the current climate. Retailers like Arhaus, RH and Williams-Sonoma all saw their share prices tumble—by 8.9 percent, 11.9 percent and 14 percent on Wednesday alone.

Amid an abundance of merchandise, retailers don’t seem to see supply and demand balancing again anytime soon. Target, for instance, said it has too much inventory in what it called “bulky” items such as TVs, kitchen appliances and outdoor furniture. Walmart said its inventory levels increased more than 33 percent in the quarter versus a year ago. Some of that is due to raising prices, but overbuying over the past few quarters played a role as well.

Throughout 2021 and into the early weeks of this year, retailers large and small bulked up their buying, both to match the heightened demand they were experiencing and as a hedge against supply chain issues that often meant everything they ordered was not likely to actually show up on their loading docks. This “buy-now, buy-often” strategy was widely seen across much of the home furnishings sector, and it resulted sometimes in questionable merchandise selections that could be overpriced and less than appropriate for a retailer’s customer base.

That didn’t matter—until it did. Sometime in late February or early March, demand suddenly plummeted. The tailspin coincided with the Russian invasion of Ukraine but also with ongoing spikes in prices of other consumer purchases, especially gasoline. The anniversary of government stimulus checks from early 2021 made the comparisons even more dramatic.

And that’s when retailers, looking at bigger inventory loads and less demand, began to tell vendors to hold off on new orders. One supplier in the home textiles sector told me a major retail account first asked him to delay delivery of a big order from late winter to early spring, only to cancel it completely once spring arrived. Another said a different national chain canceled an order for merchandise that was scheduled to be delivered in the fall with no explanation.

A home furnishings industry that just a few months ago was scrambling to meet demand now finds itself 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Goods are becoming more available as the supply chain’s freeze begins to thaw—only to be beset by yet another twist and turn of the COVID-19 roller coaster the industry has been riding for more than two years.

That ride appears to be far from over.

Homepage image: ©Sitthikorn/AdobeStock


Warren Shoulberg is the former editor in chief for several leading B2B publications. He has been a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business; received honors from the International Furnishings and Design Association and the Fashion Institute of Technology; and been cited by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other media as a leading industry expert. His Retail Watch columns offer deep industry insights on major markets and product categories.

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