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    Walmart to Add 150 U.S. Stores in Five-Year Expansion Drive

    The retail giant, which last opened a domestic location in 2021, said most of the stores would be newly built.Walmart will add 150 stores in the United States over the next five years, a major expansion drive for the retail giant.The company said the move, which it announced in a statement on Wednesday, would involve millions of dollars in investment. Walmart employs roughly 1.6 million people in the United States, and said it hires hundreds of people each time it opens a new store.Walmart had just over 4,600 stores nationwide at the end of October, down from more than 4,700 a year earlier. The company has not opened a new U.S. store since late 2021.Most of the stores that Walmart plans to open will be newly built, while others will be conversions of existing locations to new formats. The first two new stores will open in the spring, in Florida and Georgia, and the company is completing construction plans for 12 other stores this year. It also said it would remodel 650 locations.Walmart announced this week that it was raising salaries and benefits for store managers and offering them stock grants.The company reported sharply higher profit in the first three quarters of 2023, and its share price is hovering near a record high. It has yet to report earnings for its most recent quarter, which included the holiday season.Consumer spending, which powers the U.S. economy, has been resilient even though shoppers have been squeezed by high inflation and rising interest rates. Credit card data from the holiday season showed retail sales increased from a year earlier.“This is a huge vote of confidence in the American consumer,” Craig Johnson, the founder of the retail consultancy Customer Growth Partners, said of Walmart’s announcement.Mr. Johnson said investors might be concerned over how this could affect Walmart’s Sam’s Club stores, which have increasingly moved from a destination for business owners to stock up on supplies to a place where individuals shop for groceries.Walmart’s choice to open new stores and remodel some existing ones reflects the company’s focus on enhancing its in-store and pickup experiences even as e-commerce has gained popularity, said Edward Yruma, an analyst at the investment bank Piper Sandler.“As we settle into the new normal, what we’ve come to is that the consumer likes great, physical retail locations,” he said.Jordyn Holman More

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    Walmart Offers Store Managers Company Stock to Make Them Feel Like ‘Owners’

    The retailer has been raising wages for store workers. It’s now turning its attention to improving salaries and benefits for their bosses.Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, is raising salaries and benefits for store managers as it looks for ways to retain them.Walmart said on Monday that managers of its U.S. stores would be eligible for grants of up to $20,000 in company stock every year. The stock will vest over a three-year period, with a percentage vested each quarter.Earlier this month, Walmart said it would increase the average salary for store managers to $128,000 from $117,000. The big-box retailer also said bonuses for store managers could reach up to 200 percent of base salary, with a store’s profitability becoming a bigger factor in the calculation.Store managers are crucial in driving sales and profitability within their stores and keeping morale high in a dynamic business. The managers are also seen as an important pipeline for leadership at the company.A store manager at a Walmart Supercenter oversees hundreds of employees who work across a variety of departments, including food, apparel, pharmacies and auto centers. These stores often attract scores of shoppers and bring in millions of dollars in sales each year. At the start of the Covid pandemic, store managers were given even more responsibilities as the company adapted to changing consumer behavior, including managing e-commerce abilities like in-store pickup for online orders and navigating goods that are out of stock as well as excess inventory.“It’s fair to say that we’re asking them to act like owners and to think like owners,” John Furner, the chief executive of Walmart U.S. and previously a manager at a company store, said in a briefing with reporters. We are having trouble retrieving the article content.Please enable JavaScript in your browser settings.Thank you for your patience while we verify access. If you are in Reader mode please exit and log into your Times account, or subscribe for all of The Times.Thank you for your patience while we verify access.Already a subscriber?  More

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    Holiday Spending Increased, Defying Fears of a Decline

    While the pace of growth slowed, spending stayed strong because of robust job growth and strong wage gains.Despite lingering inflation, Americans increased their spending this holiday season, early data shows. That comes as a big relief for retailers that had spent much of the year fearing the economy would soon weaken and consumer spending would fall.Retail sales increased 3.1 percent from Nov. 1 to Dec. 24 compared with the same period a year earlier, according to data Mastercard released on Tuesday. The credit card company’s numbers are not adjusted for inflation.Spending increased across many categories, with restaurants experiencing one of the largest jumps, 7.8 percent. Apparel increased 2.4 percent, and groceries also had gains.The holiday sales figures, driven by a healthy labor market and wage gains, suggests that the economy remains strong. The Federal Reserve’s campaign to rein in high inflation by raising interest rates over the last few years has slowed the economy, but many economists believe a so-called soft landing is within reach.“What we’re seeing during this holiday season is very consistent with how we’re thinking about the economy, which is that it’s an economy that is still very much expanding,” said Michelle Meyer, Mastercard’s chief economist.Solid job growth is allowing people to spend more. And even though consumer prices have risen a lot in the last two years, wages have grown faster on the whole.“We’re now entering the period, and we’re seeing it to some extent during the holiday season, where consumers have built up real purchasing power,” Ms. Meyer said.Still spending in categories like electronics and jewelry declined this season. And the rate of growth in spending has moderated from the last couple of years. In 2022, retail sales during the holiday season increased 5.4 percent, according to the National Retail Federation. In 2021, they rose 12.7 percent, the largest percentage increase in at least 20 years. Online sales growth has also slowed in 2023, increasing 6.3 percent compared with 10.6 percent from 2021 to 2022, according to Mastercard.While the economy is strong overall, Americans are being more mindful of how they’re spending, and that discretion shaped the shopping season.Some retailers had expressed concerns in recent months that shoppers appeared glum and fearful about the economy. Walmart and Target noted that shoppers seemed to be waiting for sales before buying, a change from recent years when they spent more freely.“The caution that they’ve taken on their spend and where they’re spending has been really noticeable in the second half of the year, where a lot of customers have been affected, especially lower-income and middle-income” people, said Jessica Ramírez, a retail research analyst at Jane Hali & Associates.In a return to some of the trends that prevailed before the pandemic, many retailers and brands offered promotions. Discounts were in the 30 to 50 percent range, Ms. Ramírez said. But the discounts were more targeted this year than last because fewer companies were saddled with gluts of inventory.Retail sales increased this holiday season compared with the same period a year earlier, though at a slower pace than last year.Maansi Srivastava/The New York TimesThe categories that have faced falling sales this year — like electronics, home furnishings and toys — saw some of the biggest discounts leading up to Christmas. Those goods had enjoyed booming sales during the pandemic.Alexan Weir, a 30-year-old mother in Orlando, Fla., said she was pleased to find deals on toys when she bought Christmas gifts for her daughters this month. Among the items she bought at Target were the Asha doll, based on the main character from the Disney movie “Wish”; an Elsa doll from “Frozen”; and a Minnie Mouse kitchen set. With discounts, the items together cost about half as much as their total list prices of $200.“As a parent you’re just trying to make your kids happy. You’re not trying to break the bank,” Ms. Weir said. “I spent a little bit more this year, but at least with the few sales that I received, I can say I was not heartbroken about how much I was spending.”Barbie — whose banner year was fueled by the blockbuster movie — sold particularly well in a year when there wasn’t a breakout toy. The doll and her many accouterments have been selling well at Mary Arnold Toys, a family-owned store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. And overall sales at the shop have been steady, said Ezra Ishayik, who has run the store for 40 years.“It looks like it is about even with last year — not better, not worse,” Mr. Ishayik said. “The economy looks good to me. It’s decent, it’s OK, people are buying. We are on the high end of the industry so we don’t see any downtrend at all.”But the past few months have been more challenging for Modi Toys.Modi, an online retailer, sells plush toys and books based on Hindu culture and usually sees two sales bumps in the fourth quarter — one in the lead up to Diwali and another around Christmas.Normally the company brings in more than $100,000 in sales in the month before Diwali, which fell on Nov. 12, but this year sales dropped into the five-figure range. That was partly because the retailer launched a product too early and then had to offer hefty discounts to spur sales — something retailers try to avoid with new merchandise.“That’s when we knew that we really were going to have a challenging holiday season,” said Avani Modi Sarkar, a founder of the company.As she wraps up the year and looks toward 2024, Ms. Sarkar is testing new digital marketing strategies, including sending personalized email newsletters to customers and closely monitoring discounts.“We’re just trying to close the gap for us and not end the year with as big of a gap as we would have,” she said. “I know what we’re capable of, and I’m trying to not only get to that level again, but surpass it.”One clear sign that shoppers are being more careful about how much they spend comes from discount retailers. In November, Burlington, an off-price retailer, and the parent company of Marshalls and T.J. Maxx said they saw comparable store sales increase 6 percent.The online retailer ThriftBooks said its sales were also up this holiday season, by more than 20 percent in November and more than 24 percent this month compared with a year ago, according to Ken Goldstein, the company’s chief executive.“This was unprecedented,” Mr. Goldstein said. “This is beyond belief in terms of the volume that we’re doing. Because we’re a value product, I think a lot of people are putting their dollars to work.” More

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    Companies Like Afterpay and Affirm May Put Americans At Risk For ‘Phantom Debt’

    Buying mattresses, clothes and other goods on installment plans has propped up spending, but economists worry that such loans could put some people at risk.“Buy now, pay later” loans are helping to fuel a record-setting holiday shopping season. Economists worry they could also be masking and exacerbating cracks in Americans’ financial well-being.The loans, which allow consumers to pay for purchases in installments, often interest-free, have soared in popularity because of high prices and interest rates. Retailers have used them to attract customers and to get people to spend more.But such loans may be encouraging younger and lower-income Americans to take on too much debt, according to consumer groups and some lawmakers. And because such loans aren’t routinely reported to credit bureaus or captured in public data, they could also represent a hidden source of risk to the financial system.“The more I dig into it, the more concerned I am,” said Tim Quinlan, a Wells Fargo economist who recently published a report that described pay-later loans as “phantom debt.”Traditional measures of consumer credit indicate that U.S. household finances overall are relatively healthy. But, Mr. Quinlan said, “if those are missing the fastest-growing piece of the market, then those reassurances aren’t worth a darn.”Estimates of the size of this market vary widely. Mr. Quinlan thinks that spending through pay-later options was about $46 billion this year. That is small when compared with the more than $3 trillion that Americans put on their credit cards last year.But such loans — offered by companies like Klarna, Affirm, Afterpay and PayPal — have climbed fast at a moment when the finances of some Americans are showing early signs of strain.Credit card borrowing is at a record high in dollar terms — though not as a share of income — and delinquencies, though low by historical standards, are rising. That stress is especially evident among younger adults.People in their 20s and 30s are by far the biggest users of pay-later loans, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That could be both a sign of financial problems — young people may be using pay-later loans after maxing out credit cards — and a cause of it by encouraging them to spend excessively.Liz Cisneros, a 23-year-old college student in Chicago who works part time at Home Depot, said she was surprised by the ease of pay-later programs. During the pandemic, she saw influencers on TikTok promoting the loans, and a friend said they helped her buy designer shoes.Ms. Cisneros started using them to buy clothes, shoes and Sephora beauty products. She often had multiple loans at a time. She realized she was overspending when she didn’t have enough money while in a grocery checkout line. A pay-later company had withdrawn funds from her bank account that morning, and she had lost track of her payment schedule.“It’s easy when you keep continually clicking and clicking and clicking, and then it’s not,” she said, referring to when she realizes she has spent too much.Ms. Cisneros said the problem was particularly intense around Christmas, and this year she was not shopping for the holiday so she could pay off her debts.Pay-later loans became available in the United States years ago, but they took off during the pandemic when online shopping surged.The products are somewhat similar to the layaway programs offered decades earlier by retailers. Online shoppers can choose from pay-later options at checkout or on the apps of pay-later companies. The loans are also available at some physical stores; Affirm said on Tuesday that it had started offering pay-later loans at the self-checkout counters at Walmart stores.The most common loans require buyers to pay a quarter of the purchase price upfront with the rest usually paid in three installments over six weeks. Such loans are typically interest-free, though users sometimes end up owing fees. Pay-later companies make most of their money by charging fees to retailers.Some lenders also offer interest-bearing loans with repayment terms that can last a few months to more than a year. Pay-later companies say their products are better for borrowers than credit cards or payday loans. They say that by offering shorter loans, they can better assess borrowers’ ability to repay.“We’re able to identify and extend credit to consumers who have the ability and willingness to repay above that of revolving credit accounts,” Michael Linford, Affirm’s chief financial officer, said in an interview.In its most recent quarter, 2.4 percent of Affirm’s loans were delinquent by 30 days or longer, down from 2.7 percent a year earlier. Those numbers exclude its four-payment loans.Briana Gordley, who works on consumer finance issues for a progressive policy organization, learned about pay-later firms in college from friends, and still uses them occasionally for larger purchases.Montinique Monroe for The New York TimesThe service makes the most sense for certain purchases, like buying an expensive sweater that will last many years, said the chief executive of Klarna, Sebastian Siemiatkowski.He said pay later probably made less sense for more frequent purchases like groceries, though Klarna and other companies do make their loans available at some grocery stores.Mr. Siemiatkowski acknowledged that people could misuse his company’s loans.“Obviously it’s still credit, and so you’re going to find a subset of individuals who unfortunately are using it in not the way intended,” said Mr. Siemiatkowski, who founded Klarna in 2005. He said the company tried to identify those users and deny them loans or impose stricter terms on them.Klarna, which is based in Stockholm, says its global default rates are less than 1 percent. In the United States, more than a third of customers repay loans early.Kelsey Greco made her first pay-later purchase about four years ago to buy a mattress. Paying $1,200 in cash would have been difficult, and putting the purchase on a credit card seemed unwise. So she got a 12-month, interest-free loan from Affirm.Since then, Ms. Greco, 30, has used Affirm regularly, including for a Dyson hair tool and car brakes. Some of the loans charged interest, but she said that even then she preferred this form of borrowing because it was clear how much she would pay and when.“With a credit card, you can swipe it all day long and be like, ‘Wait, what did I just get myself into?’” Ms. Greco, a Denver resident, said. “Whereas with Affirm, it’s giving you these clear-cut numbers where you can see, ‘OK, this makes sense’ or ‘This doesn’t make sense.’”Ms. Greco, who was introduced to The New York Times by Affirm, said pay-later loans helped her avoid credit card debt, with which she previously had trouble.But not all consumers use pay-later options carefully. A report from the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau this year found that nearly 43 percent of pay-later users had overdrawn a bank account in the previous 12 months, compared with 17 percent of nonusers. “This is just a more vulnerable portion of the population,” said Ed deHaan, a researcher at Stanford University.In a paper published last year, Mr. deHaan and three other scholars found that within a month of first using pay-later loans, people became more likely to experience overdrafts and to start accruing credit card late fees.Financial advisers who work with low-income Americans say more clients are using pay-later loans.Barbara L. Martinez, a financial counselor in Chicago who works at Heartland Alliance, a nonprofit group, said many of her clients used cash advances to cover pay-later loans. When paychecks arrive, they don’t have enough to cover bills, forcing them to turn to more pay-later loans.“It is not that the product is bad,” she added, but “it can get out of control really fast and cause a lot of damage that could be prevented.”Barbara L. Martinez, a financial counselor in Chicago who works with low-income families, meeting with a colleague about an upcoming workshop for people wanting to learn more about financial stability.Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York TimesBriana Gordley learned about pay-later products in college. She was working part time and couldn’t get approved for a credit card, but pay-later providers were eager to extend her credit. She started falling behind when her work hours were reduced. Eventually, family and friends helped her repay the debts.Ms. Gordley, who testified about her experience last year in a listening session hosted by the Senate, now works on consumer finance issues for Texas Appleseed, a progressive policy organization. She said pay-later loans could be an important source of credit for communities that lacked access to traditional loans. She still uses them occasionally for larger purchases.But she said companies and regulators needed to make sure that borrowers could afford the debt they were taking on. “If we’re going to create these products and build out these systems for people, we also just have to have some checks and balances in place.”The Truth in Lending Act of 1968 requires credit card companies and other lenders to disclose interest rates and fees and provides borrowers with various protections, including the ability to dispute charges. But the act applies only to loans with more than four payment installments, effectively excluding many pay-later loans.Many such loans also aren’t reported to credit agencies. As a result, consumers could have multiple loans with Klarna, Afterpay and Affirm without the companies knowing about the other debts.“It’s a huge blind spot right now, and we all know that,” said Liz Pagel, a senior vice president at TransUnion who oversees the company’s consumer lending business.TransUnion and other major credit bureaus and pay-later companies all say they are supportive of more reporting.But there are practical hurdles. The credit-rating system rates borrowers more highly for having longer-term loans, including longstanding credit card accounts. Each pay-later purchase qualifies as a separate loan. As a result, those loans could lower the scores of borrowers even if they repay them on time.Ms. Pagel said TransUnion had created a new reporting system for the loans. Other credit bureaus, such as Experian and Equifax, are doing the same.Pay-later firms say they are reporting certain loans, particularly ones with longer terms. But most are not reporting and won’t commit to reporting loans with just four payments.That worries economists who say they are particularly concerned about how such loans will play out when the economy weakens and workers start losing their jobs.Marco di Maggio, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied pay-later products, said that when times were tough more people would use such loans for smaller expenses and get into trouble. “You only need one more shock to push people into default.” More

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    What Social Trends Taught Us About the 2023 Economy

    From girl dinners to ChatGPT, a look back at the trends that broke the internet and taught us about the American economy this year.This year, the world learned that some men just can’t stop thinking about the Roman Empire. Over here at The New York Times, we can’t stop thinking about what social trends like that one tell us about the American economy.We had no shortage of viral memes and moments to discuss in 2023. Americans flocked to Paris (and overseas in general). Millennial women stocked up on the Stanley thermoses their dads used to use, one of a range of female-powered consumer fads. Thanks partly to Barbie, Birkenstocks also came back harder than a ’90s trend. People spoke in Taylor Swift lyrics.Social developments like those can tell us a lot about the economy we’re living in. To wrap up 2023, we ran through some of the big cultural events and what they taught us about the labor market, economic growth and the outlook for 2024.‘He’s Just Ken’ Had Labor Market Tiebacks“Barbie,” the movie that launched a thousand think pieces, hit theaters this summer with a telling promotional catchphrase: “She’s everything. He’s just Ken.”This, clearly, was a movie about the labor market.The film pictured Barbie trying to grapple with the harshness of a real world that was not dominated by women, and Ken trying to find his footing after realizing that he lacked a clear place in Barbie’s fictional world.That was more than just social commentary. As in Barbieland, America has seen a real divergence in outcomes for young and middle-aged men and women in recent years — specifically in the labor market. Younger women were working at historically high rates before the pandemic, and they bounced right back after the 2020 downturn.Young Women Work at Near Record RatesWhile the employment rate for young women is near its peak, the employment rate for young men is below where it was in the 1990s.

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    Share of people ages 25 to 34 who are employed
    Source: Bureau of Labor StatisticsBy The New York TimesMen were a different story. Younger men’s employment bounced back, but they are still working at much lower rates than a few decades ago. Men in the 35- to 44-year-old group in particular have been working less and less over the years, and have recently failed to recapture their 2019 employment peak.Falling Employment Rates for Middle-Aged MenMiddle-aged women are employed at record levels while men in the same age group have been working less and less.

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    Share of people ages 35 to 44 who are employed
    Source: Bureau of Labor StatisticsBy The New York TimesIn 2023 specifically, women gained 1.4 jobs for every one that men did (through November).What is behind the long-run decline in male work? Economists and sociologists point to a number of causes: A shift away from marriage and the decline in childbearing have eroded one traditional social rationale for work. Men may be having something of an on-the-job identity crisis in a modern economy where many new jobs tilt toward “pink collar” service industries like child care and nursing.“Ken is trying to find his place in the world,” said Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the University of Michigan, explaining that it ties back to a world of different opportunities that have left some men searching for a new footing. “We moved from an economic model where the median job is making stuff to an economy where the median job is taking care of somebody.”Men are also less educated than today’s young women, which may leave some with less marketable résumés. (In the movie, Ken tries to get a job on the shoreline but is told he lacks the skills. He laments: “I can’t even beach here!”)Taylor Swift and Beyoncé Showed America’s Willingness to SpendIt wasn’t just the labor market that women dominated this year: It was a year of female-centric consumerism. Take, for instance, the two musical events of the summer. Both Beyoncé and Taylor Swift had huge concert tours that spurred lots of economic activity. They also released films of their shows, bringing the fun (and the money) to the box office.The concert spree itself was an example of a broader economic trend. Consumers continued to spend strongly in 2023, especially on services like live music and international travel. That was something of a surprise because forecasters had thought that much-higher interest rates from the Federal Reserve were likely to tip the economy into recession this year. ‘Girl Dinners’ Ranked Among Cheapish Food TrendsAnother place where ladies led the way in 2023? Culinary innovation. Young women posted viral TikToks about what might have, depending on one’s demographic patois, been termed a charcuterie board (millennial), a Ploughman’s (Brit) or a lunchable (Oscar Mayer). But to Generation Z, it was Girl Dinner.This, much like the Roman Empire and men meme, was an instance of a gender’s being applied to a pretty broad and basic concept. Girl dinners came in many shapes and sizes, but they were essentially just meals constructed from relatively affordable ingredients: Think leftover cheese chunks, boxed macaroni or chicken nuggets.What they did clearly echo was a broader economywide trend toward greater food thriftiness. Big retailers including Walmart and McDonald’s reported seeing a new group of shoppers as even comfortably middle-class consumers tried to save money on groceries after years of rapid food inflation. Overall price increases slowed markedly in 2023, but several years of rapid inflation have added up, leaving many prices notably higher for many basic necessities.Ozempic Worried Big FoodConsumer grocery trends saw another big and unexpected change this year. Some big food companies are worried that people are on the cusp of buying less food because of products like Ozempic and Wegovy, which rose to prominence this year as part of a new and effective set of weight-loss drugs. While that was a hopeful moment for many who have struggled with obesity and its health effects, it was one that caused consternation and adaptation at some retailers and fast-food chains. Walmart has said it already sees an impact on demand.ChatGPT Raised Eyebrows in EconomicsHealth care wasn’t the only sphere to see a big breakthrough in 2023. OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot rocketed to prominence this year for generating humanlike writing, and its competitors put up their own offerings (including one that fell in love with a Times columnist).Such technologies could have major economic implications, reshaping how we work, replacing some jobs and potentially boosting productivity. For now, office workers have used it to write emails. Students have used it to write papers. Your friendly economics correspondent tried to use it to write this story section, but artificial intelligence and Times editors have a different understanding of the term “brief.”The freely available version of ChatGPT is working from 2022 data, so it also declined to comment on another key development from this year.“If ‘rizz’ refers to something specific, please provide more context or clarify,” the chatbot responded when asked if it possessed Oxford’s word of the year, a Gen Z shorthand for “charisma.”With a little more prodding, it admitted, “I don’t have personal qualities.” More

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    Prices for Some Goods Are Actually Falling This Holiday Season

    As inflation slows, prices for some physical goods are falling outright, which could lift consumers’ spirits.American shoppers, burned by more than two years of rapid inflation, are getting some welcome relief this holiday season: Prices on many products are falling.Toys are almost 3 percent cheaper this Christmas than last, government data shows. Sports equipment is down nearly 2 percent. Bigger-ticket items are also showing price declines: Washing machines cost 12 percent less than a year ago, for example. And eggs, whose meteoric rise in prices last winter became a prime example of the country’s inflation problem, are down 22 percent over the past year.Consumer prices, in the aggregate, are still rising, though not nearly as quickly as a year ago. Most groceries still cost more than they did a year ago. So do most services, such as restaurant meals, haircuts and trips to the dentist. And housing costs, the biggest monthly expense for most Americans, are still rising for both renters and home buyers. Overall, the price of physical goods is flat over the past year, while the price of services is up a bit more than 5 percent.Still, economists view the moderation in goods prices as an important step toward putting the high inflation of the past two and a half years more firmly in the rearview mirror. They expect it to continue: Most forecasters say prices for physical products will keep falling next year, especially prices for longer-lasting manufactured goods, where the recent declines have been largest. That should help price increases overall to ease.“We’re just kind of in the beginning of that phase, and we should continue to see downward pressure on prices in this category,” said Michelle Meyer, chief economist for Mastercard.For consumers, who have been dour about the economy despite low unemployment, falling prices on many goods could provide a psychological lift. After the rapid inflation of the past few years, a mere slowdown in price increases might not feel like much to celebrate. But seeing prices fall could be a different story — especially because some of the biggest recent declines have been in categories that consumers tend to pay the most attention to, such as gasoline. (The price of regular gas, which topped $5 a gallon nationally in June 2022, has fallen to just over $3 on average, according to AAA.)Most groceries still cost more than they did a year ago. Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times“People will key in on certain prices,” said Neale Mahoney, a Stanford University economist who recently left a role in the Biden administration. “We know that people will overweight certain things.”The price of many goods soared in 2021, fed by a surge in demand from consumers flush with pandemic relief checks and by supply chain disruptions that limited supplies of many products, especially those from overseas.Many economists initially expected a quick reversal, but instead prices kept rising. Supply chains took longer to return to normal than expected, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to a spike in energy prices in 2022. At the same time, consumer demand for goods remained high, and many companies took advantage of the opportunity to push through price increases and pad their profit margins.Now, however, many of those forces are beginning to fade. Supply chains have largely returned to normal. Oil prices have fallen. Economic weakness in China and other countries has held down demand for many raw materials, which feeds through to consumer prices.Softer demand from American consumers could also be playing a role. The Federal Reserve has raised interest rates repeatedly since early last year in an effort to curb spending and control inflation. Consumers have so far proved remarkably resilient, but retailers in recent months have reported that shoppers have increasingly traded down to cheaper items or waited for sales before buying — trends that could accelerate if the economy cools further next year.“We think that the consumer is going to be looking for value, and that’s because they are very sensitive to price,” Carlos E. Alberini, chief executive of Guess, the fashion retailer, told investors last month. The company has “revisited some of the pricing structure we have in all brands,” he added.The price of services is up a bit more than 5 percent for such things as restaurant meals, haircuts and trips to the dentist.Hiroko Masuike/The New York TimesSome toy manufacturers and retailers that sell toys have also said they expect sales this season to be less robust than in years past and have leaned into advertising their products’ affordability.At many companies, price cuts have taken the form of Black Friday sales and holiday promotions that are larger for some categories of items than in past years. At Signet Jewelers, the big diamond retailer, sales fell in the third quarter, and the company recently said that it expected sales to be lower this holiday season than last year in part because of “elevated promotional activity.”“It’s been a different holiday season,” Virginia C. Drosos, Signet’s chief executive, told investors on a conference call this month. Instead of shopping early, customers are waiting to make their purchases and are looking for deals, she said.Matt Pavich, senior director of innovation and strategy for Revionics, a company that uses artificial intelligence to help retailers set prices, said companies were trying to cut prices before their competitors do.“As prices come down, there’s going to be the race to bring prices down more, get the credit for that,” he said. “We’re going to see retailers really trying to win back consumers’ trust.”Still, prices for most products remain well above where they were before the pandemic. A dozen eggs cost about 50 cents more than in February 2020. Used car prices, another prominent example of pandemic sticker shock, have fallen more than 10 percent from their peak early last year but are 37 percent above where they were in February 2020.Services prices are still climbing more quickly than before the pandemic. Some economists say that goods prices will need to fall further for overall inflation to return to the Federal Reserve’s target of 2 percent a year.“We need pretty substantial deflation, and I wouldn’t call what we’re seeing ‘substantial,’” said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project, an economic policy division of the Brookings Institution. “It’s not even substantial in a historical context.”Indeed, prices of durable goods fell much of the two decades that preceded the pandemic. Long-term trends such as globalization and automation have tended to push down manufacturing costs. Intense competition among retailers, especially with the rise of online shopping, meant those savings were mostly passed on to consumers.Services prices, on the other hand, rarely fall, in part because wages account for a much larger share of the cost of most services. During the decade before the pandemic, services prices gradually rose while goods prices were flat or fell, resulting in an extended period of stable, moderate inflation.Economists don’t expect to see outright deflation, in which prices fall for both goods and services. That’s a good thing: Overall price declines are generally viewed as economically dangerous, if they last.“When demand in the economy is weak, the last thing you want is someone to say, ‘I’m not going to buy that car today because it’s going to be $600 less expensive in six months,’” said Karen Dynan, an economist at Harvard.Brittany Greeson for The New York TimesThere are a few reasons. For starters, in theory, deflation could prompt consumers to hold off on spending, touching off a downward spiral. People may be unlikely to buy today what they expect to be cheaper tomorrow. Once deflation takes hold, it can be difficult to escape: Japan has been stuck in a deflationary pattern since the late 1990s.“When demand in the economy is weak, the last thing you want is someone to say, ‘I’m not going to buy that car today because it’s going to be $600 less expensive in six months,’” said Karen Dynan, an economist at Harvard.For another, companies are unlikely to raise wages in a world where they cannot charge more. And if wages are not going up — or are even going down — it will be harder for households to keep up with fixed bills, like mortgage interest payments.But while broad-based price declines are a problem, most economists view the more limited declines happening now as a sign that the economy is gradually moving past the disruptions of the pandemic.“Supply chains have basically normalized,” said Neil Dutta, head of economic research at Renaissance Macro. “Household demand behavior has basically normalized, the dollar is still pretty strong. I wouldn’t see a reason why goods prices would go higher.” More

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    My Not-So-Perfect Holiday Shopping Excursion With A.I. Chatbots

    With Shopify, Mercari and other retailers rolling out chatbots to help buyers, this holiday shopping season is the first to be powered by A.I.To help with my holiday shopping this year, I recently turned to a new personal assistant online. “I’m looking for a Christmas present for my mother, who spends long hours working,” I typed. “Is there something she can use in her office every day?”“Of course!” came the instant reply. “Does your mother have any specific preferences or needs for her office? For example, does she need organization tools, desk accessories, or something to help her relax during breaks?”So began my conversation with Shop A.I., a new chatbot from Shopify, an e-commerce marketplace. Over 10 minutes, Shop A.I. and I engaged in a question-and-answer session. I told the chatbot my budget and more about my mother, such as her need to alleviate back pain. Shop A.I. also asked me about my mother’s preferred design and color for an office chair.More people may eventually replicate this kind of shopping experience. A year after ChatGPT debuted, retailers around the world have started rolling out chatbots that are powered by generative artificial intelligence. That makes this holiday season the first when a slew of A.I. chatbots can help shoppers brainstorm and find presents for their friends and loved ones.In addition to Shopify, chatbots have come out over the past 12 months from Instacart, the delivery company; Mercari, a resale platform; Carrefour, a retailer; and Kering, which owns Gucci and Balenciaga. Walmart, Mastercard and Signet Jewelers are also testing chatbots, which may become publicly available as soon as next year.“In a way, it’s recreating an in-store environment, but online,” said Carl Rivera, a vice president at Shopify who oversees its Shop app, which hosts Shop A.I. He said the chatbot broke down people’s questions into key terms and searched relevant products from Shopify’s millions of sellers. It then recommends products based on reviews and a shopper’s purchase history.Retailers have long used chatbots, but previous versions lacked conversational power and typically answered just a few preset questions, such as the status of an order. The newest chatbots, by contrast, can process prompts and generate tailored answers, both of which create a more “personalized and authentic interaction,” said Jen Jones, the chief marketing officer of the platform Commercetools.Whether shoppers want this technology remains a question. “Consumers like simplicity, so they don’t necessarily want to have five different generative A.I. tools that they would use for different purposes,” said Olivier Toubia, a marketing professor at Columbia Business School.Nicola Conway, a lawyer in London, tried Kering’s luxury personal shopper, Madeline, in August to search for a pink bridesmaid dress for a spring wedding. Madeline was “intuitive and novel,” she said, but it gave only one recommendation, an Alexander McQueen corset dress. Ms. Conway did not end up buying it.Kering did not respond to requests for comment.Maggie Weber, a shopping influencer who uses the social media handle @refashionedhippie, said she tried Mercari’s chatbot, Merchat A.I., in May. She asked the chatbot to show her baseball cards, but she was instead offered baseballs — and then hats, bats and jerseys.“Merchat is still in its infancy,” Ms. Weber, 34, said. She added that she worried that if she gave the chatbot too much information, it would start directing personalized ads to her.A Mercari spokeswoman said Merchat used chat history only to recommend products and did not use personally identifiable information. She added that the search bar could be faster for customers who want a specific item, while the chatbot helped those who want “inspiration for gifts.”Such inspiration was exactly what I needed this season as I had only vague ideas for what to buy my 53-year-old mother and my 17-year-old cousin, Jenny.A screenshot of our reporter’s conversation with Merchat A.I., a chatbot that helps shoppers.So I tried Shop A.I. After telling the chatbot about my mother’s back pain and asking what I could buy to help her relax, Shop A.I. offered to find an ergonomic chair and asked my budget. When I said $100, it came back with a few pages of product results.“Can you help me to narrow it down?” I typed. Shop A.I. then asked about my preferred color for a chair. I said black.Shop A.I. returned more than 300 results, including a $159 camp chair from ROAM Adventure, a $179.99 reclining massage office chair from homrest and a $269.99 CosyGaming executive chair.“These don’t seem to be under $100,” I wrote, annoyed.“As a new chatbot, I’m still learning and sometimes the search results may not be accurate,” Shop A.I. replied. “Let me try again and find some black ergonomic chairs within your budget.”Shop A.I. returned more than 300 results for black ergonomic chairs, though few were under $100.Then, it added, “It seems that I’m having trouble finding black ergonomic chairs within your budget at the moment.”I ended up typing “black ergonomic chair” into the search bar myself and set a $100 price range. A $66.81 Victory Furniture gaming chair and a $47.96 massage office chair popped up, though they were too big and heavy to be gifts.Eventually, I asked Shop A.I. for alternative ideas and received five options, including seat cushions and standing desk converters.I chose the standing desk converter and gave Shop A.I. my $100 budget. This time, the chatbot showed options within my price range, including a $99 Risedesk standing desk converter. But most of the products did not have reviews, which I rely on while shopping online. I didn’t buy anything.Shop A.I. provided alternative gift recommendations, including standing desk converters.Shop A.I. was not great at finding a gift for my cousin, either. I wanted to buy Jenny some college dorm decorations featuring her favorite anime series, Violet Evergarden, which follows a character named Violet as she recovers from an unidentified war.But Shop A.I. appeared to decide that anything the color violet was connected to my query. It showed me wall art of purple mountains and posters of purple BMW cars.So I turned to Mercari’s Merchat. After asking for my cousin’s hobby (anime), age (17) and what she might prefer for college (dorm decorations), Merchat offered three gift ideas: wall tapestries, string lights and desk accessories in the theme of Violet Evergarden.Merchat showed me four products under each category, all of which were under my budget of $50. I ended up buying an $18 Violet Evergarden poster scroll for Jenny. (She later told me she wished I had gotten her something quirkier.)Emboldened by the experience, I asked Merchat to help find a present for my mother. “Would she benefit from a back support cushion, a heating pad or maybe a massage chair pad?” it asked.“What are the pros and cons of each?” I typed.Merchat said it couldn’t provide specific pros and cons for individual items. I changed my question to: “Which one is the easiest to use?”This time, Merchat was definitive: the back support cushion, which was portable. Merchat detailed the differences between a memory-foam cushion and a firmer one, then further grouped memory-foam cushions into three categories and displayed the top four results for each, all under $100.While I didn’t buy any because the styles were limited, it was a great starting point.“Thank you,” I wrote.“You’re welcome!” Merchat replied. “Happy shopping and have a wonderful time with your family!” More

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    Corporate America Is Testing the Limits of Its Pricing Power

    Alexander MacKay coleads the Pricing Lab at Harvard Business School, a research center devoted to studying how companies set prices. Since the pandemic, he has watched how businesses have become more willing to experiment with what they charge their customers.Big companies that had previously pushed through one standard price increase per year are now raising prices more frequently. Retailers increasingly use digital price displays, which they can change with the touch of a button. Across the economy, executives trying to maximize profits are effectively running tests to see what prices consumers will bear before they stop buying.Huge disruptions to supply chains pushed up corporate costs during the pandemic and forced many companies to think more creatively about their pricing strategies, Mr. MacKay said. That supercharged a trend toward more rigorous pricing, and showed many companies that they could more boldly play with prices without chasing shoppers away. The experimentation continues even as costs ease.“We may have prices changing more quickly than they have before,” he said. That could mean up or down, though companies are generally more eager to raise prices than cut them. Firms are trying to figure out how to protect the profits they have built since the pandemic. For big companies in the S&P 500 index, the average profit margin — the percentage of profit relative to revenue — soared in late 2020 and into 2021, as government stimulus and the Federal Reserve’s emergency interventions stoked consumer demand. At the same time, companies raised their prices so much that they more than covered higher costs for energy, transportation, labor and other inputs, which have recently started to come down.Corporations as varied as Apple and Williams-Sonoma recently reported their highest-ever margins for the third quarter, while Delta Air Lines said its international routes generated record profitability over the summer.Margins eased somewhat last year, but have recently recovered to levels that would have set records before the pandemic. Average margins in nearly every sector in the S&P 500 are running near or above 10-year highs, according to Goldman Sachs.“Companies are maintaining or even expanding margins because they are not passing these cost cuts onto consumers,” said Albert Edwards, a strategist at Société Générale, who called recent moves in margins “obscene.”

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    Quarterly net profit margin of S&P 500 companies
    Source: FactSetBy The New York TimesNow, companies are trying to figure out how to set prices to protect profits at what could prove to be a turning point. High interest rates and waning savings are making some — though by no means all — shoppers more price sensitive.Many companies may be able to protect profits just by holding prices steady as their own costs come down. But some are still thinking about whether they can push prices up further as demand cools and overall inflation abates.“I don’t think companies have the monopoly power to just willy-nilly raise prices,” said Ed Yardeni, president of the research firm Yardeni Research.There’s a focus on margins over market share.Many corporations are talking on earnings calls about how they are prioritizing profit margins — even when that translates into less growth.Take Sysco, the food wholesaler. Its local market business has turned slower recently, Kevin Hourican, the company’s chief executive, said on an October earnings call.But “Sysco is not reacting by leading with price to win share,” he said, referring to the tactic of cutting prices to gain more customers, which is commonly used during downturns. “Instead, we are focused on profitable growth.”Lennox, a heating and air-conditioning company, is working to perfect its pricing strategy based on years of data, Alok Maskara, the firm’s chief executive, said at an investor event this summer.People in the industry are “margin-dollar focused versus revenue-dollar focused,” he said, implying that fewer, more-profitable sales are preferred to many, less-profitable ones.That’s a shift from post-2009 practice.The focus on higher margins — even if it means selling less — is in some cases a shift away from the conventional wisdom in the years during and after the 2009 recession. Back then, some executives felt compelled to compete on price for cost-sensitive shoppers. For hotels, that meant a focus on filling every room.“If you remember back in the Great Recession, there was this view of let’s just drop rates until we get people to heads in beds,” Leeny Oberg, Marriott’s chief financial officer, said in a September meeting with investors. She added that “it wasn’t necessarily the right strategy all the time.”Now “the industry has clearly learned some lessons,” she said. Over the past few years, the company has aimed for more of a balance between maximizing revenue and profit, she noted.Retailers, which have been caught out by shifting consumer tastes in recent years, are talking more lately about “inventory discipline,” or keeping less product in stock, so that they can avoid selling things at clearance prices. The logic is that it’s better to sacrifice a few sales by running out of products than being forced to slash prices in a way that hits the bottom line.The clothing chain American Eagle Outfitters has been expanding its margins by “maintaining tight inventory and promotional discipline,” Jay Schottenstein, the company’s chief executive, said on a November earnings call.Companies learned they can charge more than they thought.While consumers are pulling back from some purchases as prices rise, that is not universally true — hence the value of experimentation. Robert J. Gamgort, the chief executive of Keurig Dr Pepper, said recently that consumers have shown little reaction to higher costs for carbonated drinks.That suggests “it was too good of a value at the start at this,” he said at an investor conference in September, referring to the recent inflationary period. “It was underpriced.”The company, which raised prices at its U.S. beverage unit by 7 percent last quarter, highlighted “strong gross margin expansion” at the top of its latest earnings report.Some executives also find that they can charge more by branding something as a luxury product or experience.“Despite the current economic environment, we continue to see consumers trade up to premium amenities,” Melissa Thomas, chief financial officer at the movie theater chain Cinemark, said on a November earnings call.But price sensitivity may return.Kellogg, the cereal company, had been passing through substantial price increases without losing customers — a situation economists call low price elasticity. It’s like if you snap a rubber band (raise prices) but it doesn’t react (shoppers keep buying).But recently, consumers are beginning to pull back in response to sticker shock.“Price elasticity has hit the market pretty meaningfully,” Gary Pilnick, Kellogg’s chief executive, said on a call with analysts last month. “You might recall that there’s been about 35 percent of price increases over the last couple of years for us, and the elasticities were fairly benign for quite some time.”Price sensitivity is also showing up at brands that cater to lower-income consumers, like Walmart and McDonald’s, which have seen business expand as wealthier people look for deals.“We continue to gain share with both the middle- and higher-income consumers,” Ian Borden, chief financial officer of McDonald’s, said on an October earnings call, although he noted that the company was seeing its lower-income customers struggle.The ability to raise prices — or keep them high — may not last.Even as companies are getting creative to protect their margins, the economy has also held up better than many expected. Overall growth has remained rapid, consumer spending has expanded, and a long-warned-about recession has remained at bay.The question is whether companies will be able to protect profits in an environment where that momentum slows.“Customers are rebelling,” said Paul Donovan, chief economist at UBS Global Wealth Management. “We have reached that point of resistance.” More