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As March 2023 comes to an end, economic data is delivering mixed signals about the consumer.
A key government measure showed consumer spending and inflation both cooled off in February. Meanwhile, separate measures of the consumer mood provided conflicting views of the outlook for the economy, and spending plans.
Here’s a look at the latest data:
Consumer spending: In February, consumer spending rose 0.2% over January, according to the Personal Consumption Expenditures Index. While this was an uptick, it was far less than the 2% increase observed for January. The index’s real PCE measure said spending for goods was down a modest 0.1% for the month.
Disposable income increased 0.5% for the month in February. This was a more modest increase than the 2% gain observed in January, but the notable rise will help consumers at a time when they are seeking to keep pace with rising prices amid inflation.
Inflation: The PCE Price Index, which is the preferred measure of inflation among economists and the Federal Reserve, showed inflation cooled off in February. The monthly increase for core inflation was 0.3% over January, which was lower than 0.5% observed the month before. On an annual basis, the change was less marked, as core inflation increased 4.6% in February, which is only slightly above the 4.5% rise in prices observed in January.
Consumer sentiment falls: Consumer sentiment fell 8% below February, according to the University of Michigan. While the shopper mood remains 4% better than a year ago, the outlook is starting to get cloudy. “Overall, our data revealed multiple signs that consumers increasingly expect a recession ahead,” wrote UM Survey of Consumers Director Joanne Hsu. Inflation expectations for the year-ahead came in at 3.6%, which is a drop to their lowest level since April 2021. It’s a sign that people see signs that prices will come down, even if economic fortunes might shift.
Consumer confidence rises: U.S. consumer confidence increased slightly in March as this index showed expectations for the near term improved in March, according to the Conference Board. While confidence is below the 2022 average, there was an improved outlook among people over the age of 55, and households earning more than $50,000.
“While consumers feel a bit more confident about what’s ahead, they are slightly less optimistic about the current landscape,” said Ataman Ozyildirim, senior director of economics at The Conference Board, in a statement. “The share of consumers saying jobs are ‘plentiful’ fell, while the share of those saying jobs are ‘not so plentiful’ rose. The latest results also reveal that their expectations of inflation over the next 12 months remains elevated…Overall purchasing plans for appliances continued to soften while automobile purchases saw a slight increase.”
Trending in Economy
Campbell Soup Company CEO Mark Clouse offered thoughts on messaging amid inflationary shifts in consumer behavior.
After months of elevated inflation and interest rate hikes that have the potential to cool demand, consumers are showing more signs of shifting behavior.
It’s showing up in retail sales data, but there’s also evidence in the observations of the brands responsible for grocery store staples.
The latest example came this week from Campbell Soup Company. CEO Mark Clouse told analysts that the consumer continues to be “resilient” despite continued price increases on food, but found that “consumers are beginning to feel that pressure” as time goes on.
This shows up in the categories they are buying. Overall, Clouse said Campbell sees a shift toward shelf-stable items, and away from more expensive prepared foods.
There is also change in when they make purchases. People are buying more at the beginning of the month. That’s because they are stretching paychecks as long as possible.
These shifts change how the company is communicating with consumers.
Clouse said the changes in behavior are an opportunity to “focus on value within our messaging without necessarily having to chase pricing all the way down.”
“No question that it's important that we protect affordability and that we make that relevant in the categories that we're in," Clouse said. "But I also think there's a lot of ways to frame value in different ways, right?”
A meal cooked with condensed soup may be cheaper than picking up a frozen item or ordering out. Consumers just need a reminder. Even within Campbell’s own portfolio, the company can elevate brands that have more value now, even if they may not always get the limelight.
The open question is whether the shift in behavior will begin to show up in the results of the companies that have raised prices. Campbell’s overall net sales grew 5% for the quarter ended April 30, while gross profit margins held steady around 30%. But the category-level results were more uneven. U.S. soup sales declined 11%, though the company said that was owed to comparisons with the quarter when supply chains reopened a year ago and expressed confidence that the category is seeing a longer-term resurgence as more people cook at home following the pandemic. Snacks, which includes Goldfish and Pepperidge Farm, were up 12% And while net sales increased overall, the amount of products people are buying is declining. Volumes were down 7%.
These are trends happening across the grocery store. Campbell is continuing to compete. It is leading with iconic brands, and a host of different ways to consume them. It is following that up with innovation that makes the products stand out. Then, it is driving home messaging that shows consumers how to fit the products into their lives, and even their tightening spending plans.
Campbell Soup is more than 150 years old, and has seen plenty of difficult economic environments. It is also a different business today, and will continue to evolve. At the end of the day, continued execution is what’s required.
“If it's good food, people are going to buy it, especially if it's a great value,” Clouse said.