Is the Retail Boom Hiding a Bigger Problem?
Retail sales reached a 4-year high of over $615B in December 2023 with yearly retail sales growing 4.6%. At the same time, lenders are tightening credit, and businesses within the retail sector are showing signs of stress with higher late-stage delinquency rates and falling commercial credit scores. We see retailers seeking commercial credit less often, new origination’s slowing, and lower lines over the past several months. As retail sales continue to rise so does the proportion of online retail sales.
Online sales peaked during the COVID-19 pandemic and fell slightly once the lock downs were lifted. Online retail sales remain approximately 56% higher than pre-pandemic levels and are trending up and may soon exceed 2020 levels.
Growth in online retail sales has led to growth in retail returns. Retail returns peaked in 2022 at over $800MM and over 16% of total retail sales.
Before 2021, retail returns as a percentage of retail sales averaged 8.9%, since 2021 that rate has grown to 14.6%. As returns increase so do fraudulent returns. Retailers have implemented strategies and solutions to address retail returns which resulted in a decrease in return dollars between 2022 and 2023 yet the percentage of returns that were fraudulent increased from 10.2% to 13.7% or over $100B. Increases in both legitimate and fraudulent returns are prompting retailers to identify solutions and operational strategies to slow growth across all returns.
The U.S. economy expanded 3.3% in Q4 2023, and 2023 real GDP increased 2.5% over 2022. Strong consumer spending fueled the economy. Multiple sources are expecting The Federal Reserve to cut interest rates up to six times in 2024 with the rate cuts beginning in Q2 2024 and continuing into 2025.
Lower interest rates likely mean that consumer spending will continue at an elevated rate. As spending continues to increase, specifically in the retail sector, the need for commercial credit could continue to slow as cash flows satisfy operational capital requirements. Cash on hand should begin to satisfy outstanding delinquencies, improving commercial credit scores and resulting in improved access to commercial credit.