The long-anticipated vax summer didn't exactly go down as advertised.
Consumers who may have imagined themselves getting out of the house for the first time in forever instead were met with uncertainty amid spiking Delta variant cases. That has been reflected in purchasing habits.
The past week was stacked with quarterly earnings calls for major retailers, including Walmart, Target, Home Depot, Lowe's, Kohl's, TJ Maxx, and Ross. Plus, the US Census released its monthly retail numbers.
Insider listened in to each of those earnings calls, picked over the reports, and took note of the top trends impacting the industry.
In short, shoppers' needs and wants have shifted and solidified in a few key ways.
1. Private brands, partnerships performed big time
Consumers want products they just can't get anywhere else. And that's sending them running to big box stores that specialize in private label brands.
Target executives reported record sales for its in-house brands, ten of which now pull in over a billion dollars apiece annually.
Walmart's team saw a similar phenomenon at Sam's Club, the company's members-only warehouse chain. Sam's Club has hit a new high with its overall member count, not to mention spiking renewal rates and an operating income boost of 11.5%.
And analysts reacted enthusiastically to Kohl's new partnership with makeup giant Sephora. As part of the exclusive deal, the big box retailer will roll out 850 new Sephora stores throughout its chain.
2. DIY is dwindling, but projects are getting bigger
On the surface, home improvement seemed to crumble. Home Depot and Lowe's both saw share prices tumble on Tuesday after Home Depot reported falling store traffic. On Wednesday Lowe's reported lower sales compared with last year.
But both home improvement giants said the renovation boom is far from over. Home Depot customers are actually spending more in 2021, with the average ticket size jumping from $74.12 to $82.48, and Lowes saw a 17.2% increase in big-ticket transactions over $500.
The apparent decline appears to in fact be a shift as homeowners move from doing projects themselves and instead hire a pro for even more ambitious jobs.
3. Consumers crave cheap clothing
With normalcy on the horizon for vaccinated consumers, shoppers increasingly want clothes to go out in. That said, they're not looking to spend an huge amount of money.
That's to the great benefit of discount clothing stores. TJ Maxx saw a record spike in apparel sales in June. Kohl's enjoyed soaring sales. Ross Stores also thrived. Both retailers are in a position to benefit from spiking apparel prices.
With their steep discount rates, both chains can raise prices without inducing sticker shock for customers. Ross Stores' sales were somewhat hampered by an outlook that forecast supply chain complications and possible issues regarding COVID-19 variants.
And big box giant Walmart — with its sharp focus on low costs — is yet another boat raised by the tide of spiking clothing prices. In the Arkansas-based company's earnings call, executives cited apparel as a particularly hot category.
4. E-commerce is the new king, but brick-and-mortar is still key
Vaccination rates are again ticking up in the US, and store visits for brick-and-mortar powerhouses Walmart and Target have recovered to pre-pandemic numbers, according to foot traffic tracker Placer.ai.
But that doesn't mean that customers are forgoing shopping online. In fact, as retail chains reported their earnings, the New York Times reported that Amazon finally overtook Walmart as the top seller in the United States.
Between June 2020 to June 2021, shoppers spent $610 billion at Amazon, according to estimates from financial research firm FactSet cited by the Times. In that same time period, consumers spent $566 billion at Walmart.
On top of that, the Wall Street Journal reported Amazon's plans to push into large department-style stores, following the lead of digital-native direct-to-consumer retailers like Glossier and Warby Parker.
In spite of softer than expected retail sales overall, the picture this week is one of still pent-up consumer demand that is being unevenly met. Retailers and shoppers alike have shown a willingness to adapt, and that could be a big lift for the industry.