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The labor market continued to show strength to start 2023, as the monthly jobs report posted big numbers.
Key data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly jobs report:
- Unemployment fell to 3.4%, ticking down from 3.5% in December to remain at historic lows.
- The economy added jobs to the tune of 517,000, which bested the 2022 average of 401,000.
- Average hourly wages rose by $0.10, marking year-over-year growth of 4.4%.
The Current’s view: The labor market continues to be an economic outlier. While there are signs of consumer pullback and belt-tightening among tech companies and retailers after months of high inflation, the job picture remains bright. One month into the year, there are few signs of the widespread “pain” that economists predicted in this indicator of the economy.
What brands and retailers are thinking: Jobs are a major indicator of demand, and the labor market continues to hum along. That means the consumer pullback is tied to choices about discretionary spending and holding off on certain purchases in the face of high prices, moreso than being unable to afford items altogether.
What the Fed is thinking: Here’s more evidence that a soft landing might be possible. The Fed has been raising interest rates to bring down inflation. There is risk that this will slow down the economy, including employment. There was some slowing in job growth in December, but this report indicates labor market softening still hasn’t happened for a sustained period, even as inflation is cooling. After the central bank scaled back its latest interest rate hike to 0.25% on Wednesday, Fed Chair Jerome Powell said he sees a “path” to bringing down inflation without a significant rise in unemployment. Here’s one more piece of data to bolster that belief.
Keep in mind: The labor market is still out of balance between supply and demand. This report shows a big rise in jobs and the labor force participation rate remaining the same. Job openings actually increased in December, the Labor Department found. So there a still the case. Eventually, it will likely have to come into balance. But given the unpredictability of this economic era, it’s tough to know when, or even how.
So, will there be a recession? One influential retail economist says no. National Retail Federation Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said conditions are likely to worsen in the economy, as growth will slow down with interest rates remaining in "restrictive territory." This will bring further headwinds to consumer demand. But he expects the hot labor market and strength of corporate and household balance sheets to serve as a bulwark against a recession.
“A month into 2023, the economy is facing stiff headwinds and – with the exception of easing inflation – will likely face more challenges before it gets better,” Kleinhenz wrote in an NRF economic review. “The debate on whether we are in a recession will heighten over the next few months, just like last year. But while households will probably feel recession-like conditions this year, I do not expect that the downturn will be severe enough to become an official recession.”
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.