According to the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Census Bureau, retail sales came in at a negative 0.3 percent for September, even though it's still 4.1 percent more than September 2018's report. The same report followed up on August 2019’s numbers, with a revision by the agency to 0.6 percent, up from 0.4 percent. With the ongoing U.S.-China trade war and tariff uncertainty, how will consumer spending be impacted?
Current State of Trade and Tariffs
With phase one agreed to, at least in principle, at the end of the meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Liu on Oct. 11, President Trump agreed to keep tariffs at 25 percent on $250 billion in Chinese imports, instead of increasing the tariffs to 30 percent. Additional tariffs also are threatened to be imposed on Dec. 15 for other goods, depending on future negotiations. However, by then the fourth quarter will be nearly completed, so this will probably lessen the likelihood of reduced U.S. consumer spending during the holiday shopping season.
According to an Oct. 3 press release, the National Retail Federation (NRF) projects that consumer purchases for the 2019 holiday season will come in between $727.9 billion and $730.7 billion. The current holiday spending is projected to grow between 3.8 percent and 4.2 percent compared to 2018. It's important to note that the NRF's 2019 projections don't include restaurants, auto dealerships or gas stations. And the projections are higher despite an average retail sales growth of 3.7 percent over the past five years.
The NRF says that along with interest rate and global economic concerns and a politicizing of the economy, trade is an equally concerning factor for retail sales.
As the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) announced an additional 10 percent of tariffs on $300 billion in Chinese imports, effective Sept. 1, the NRF explained that consumer confidence was shaken. A September 2019 NRF survey found that 79 percent of retail shoppers were worried that tariffs will increase the prices of goods they would be buying.
With the USTR reporting on Aug. 23 that $112 billion of Chinese imports will face tariffs of 15 percent, up from 10 percent, on Sept. 1, the NRF explains how it impacts consumer items, especially footwear and apparel. The NRF gives a few examples of how consumers, specifically football fans, will be impacted negatively.
Footballs made in China are now subject to 15 percent tariffs, no longer 10 percent. While sweatshirts, T-shirts and jerseys (for football and all professional sports teams made in China), are subject to a 15 percent tariff – this is still a sizeable cost increase. If these were subject to 25 percent tariffs, research by the Trade Partnership done for the NRF found that it would cost U.S. consumers $4.4 billion extra for this type of apparel.
While it hasn't happened yet, the $160 billion of Chinese imports currently subject to 10 percent tariffs are expected to be increased to a 15 percent tariff on Dec. 15. While it’s still expected to be implemented at the tail end of Q4, any effects will naturally be felt in 2020.
While there’s no way to determine how tariffs will impact retail sales officially calculated, consumers will certainly take a second look at prices whether or not they make a purchase.