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    As Inventory Piles Up, Liquidation Warehouses Are Busy

    PITTSTON, Pa. — Once upon a time, when parents were scrambling to occupy their children during pandemic lockdowns, bicycles were hard to find. But today, in a giant warehouse in northeastern Pennsylvania, there are shiny new Huffys and Schwinns available at big discounts.The same goes for patio furniture, garden hoses and portable pizza ovens. There are home spas, Rachael Ray’s nonstick pans and a backyard firepit, which promises to make “memories every day.”The warehouse is run by Liquidity Services, a company that collects surplus and returned goods from major retailers like Target and Amazon and resells them, often for cents on the dollar. The facility opened last November and is operating at exceptionally high volumes for this time of year.The warehouse offers a window into a reckoning across the retail industry and the broader economy: After a two-year binge of consumer spending — fueled by government checks and the ease of e-commerce — a nasty hangover is taking hold.The warehouse is nearly the size of two football fields.With consumers cutting down on discretionary purchases because of high inflation, retailers are now stuck with more inventory than they need. While overall spending rebounded last month, some major retailers say shoppers are buying less clothing, gardening equipment and electronics and focusing instead on basics like food and gas.Adding to that glut are all the things people bought during the pandemic — often online — and then returned. In 2021, shoppers returned an average of 16.6 percent of their purchases, up from 10.6 percent in 2020 and more than double the rate in 2019, according to an analysis by the National Retail Federation, a trade group, and Appriss Retail, a software and analytics firm.Last year’s returns, which retailers are not always able to resell themselves, totaled $761 billion in lost sales. That, the retail federation noted, is more than the annual budget for the U.S. Department of Defense.It’s becoming clear that retailers badly misjudged supply and demand. Part of their miscalculation was caused by supply chain delays, which prompted companies to secure products far in advance. Then, there is the natural cycle of booms — whether because of optimism or greed, companies rarely pull back before it’s too late.“It is surprising to me on some level that we saw all that surge of buying activity and we weren’t collectively able to see that it was going to end at some point,” J.D. Daunt, chief commercial officer at Liquidity Services, said in an interview at the Pennsylvania warehouse earlier this month.“You would think that there would be enough data and enough history to see that a little more clearly,” he added. “But it also suggests that times are changing and they are changing fast and more dramatically.”Strong consumer spending may have saved the economy from ruin during the pandemic, but it has also led to enormous excess and waste.Retailers have begun to slash prices on inventory in their stores and online. Last Monday, Walmart issued the industry’s latest warning when it said that its operating profits would drop sharply this year as it cut prices on an oversupply of general merchandise.The warehouse opened in November and is operating at exceptionally high volumes.Adding to the glut are the things people bought during the pandemic and then returned.Many companies cannot afford to let discounted items ‌linger on their shelves because they have to make room for new seasonal goods and the necessities that consumers now prefer. While some retailers are discounting the surplus within their stores, many would rather avoid holding big sales themselves for fear of hurting their brands by conditioning buyers to expect big price cuts as the norm. So retailers look to liquidators to do that dirty work.Additionally, industry executives say the glut is so large that some retailers could run out of space to house it all.“It’s unprecedented,” said Chuck Johnston, a former Walmart executive, who is now chief strategy officer at goTRG, a firm which helps retailers manage returns. “I have never seen the pressure in terms of excess inventory as I am seeing right now.”So, much of the industry’s flotsam and jetsam washes up in warehouses like this one, located off Interstate 81, a few exits from the President Biden Expressway in Scranton, the president’s hometown.The giant facility is part of an industrial park that was built above a reclaimed strip mine dating back to when this region was a major coal producer. Today, the local economy is home to dozens of e-commerce warehouses that cover the hilly landscape like giant spaceships, funneling goods to the population centers in and around New York and Philadelphia.Liquidity Services, a publicly traded company founded in 1999, decided to open its new facility as close as it could to the Scranton area’s major e-commerce warehouses, making it easy for retailers to dispense with their unwanted and returned items.Even before the inventory glut appeared this spring, returns had been a major problem for retailers. The huge surge in e-commerce sales during the pandemic — increasing more than 40 percent in 2020 from the previous year — has only added to it.The National Retail Federation and Appriss Retail calculate that more than 10 percent of returns last year involved fraud, including people wearing clothing and then sending it back or stealing goods from stores and returning them with fake receipts. But more fundamentally, industry analysts say the increasing returns reflect consumer expectations that everything can be taken back.“It’s getting worse and worse,” Mr. Johnston said.Some of the returns and excess inventory will be donated to charities or returned to the manufacturers. Others get recycled, buried in landfills or burned in incinerators that generate electricity.Early in the pandemic, children’s bicycles could be hard to find. Now, they’re available at big discounts.Liquidators say they offer a more environmentally responsible option by finding new buyers and markets for unwanted products, both those that were returned and those that were never bought in the first place. “We are reducing the carbon footprint,” said Tony Sciarrotta, executive director of the Reverse Logistics Association, the industry trade group. “But there is still too much going to landfills.”Retailers will probably receive only a fraction of the items’ original value from the liquidators but it makes more sense to take the losses and move the goods off the store shelves quickly.Still, liquidation can be a sensitive topic for the big companies that want customers to focus on their “A-goods,” not the failures.Mr. Sciarrotta calls it “the dark side” of retail.On a tour through the Pennsylvania warehouse, Mr. Daunt and the warehouse manager, Trevor Morgan, said they were not allowed to discuss where the products originated. But it was not difficult to figure out.An 85-inch flat-screen TV had an Amazon Prime sticker still on the box. Bathroom vanities came from Home Depot. There was a “home theater” memory foam futon with a built-in cup holder from a Walmart return center.Many unopened boxes on the warehouse floor carried the familiar bull’s-eye logo of Target. Air fryers, baby strollers and towering stacks of Barbie’s “Dream House,” which features a swimming pool, elevator and a home office. (Even Barbie, it seems, has grown tired of working from home.)When Target’s sales exploded during the first year of the pandemic, the company was a darling of Wall Street. But in May, the retailer said it was stuck with an oversupply of certain goods and the company’s stock price plummeted nearly 25 percent in one day. Other retailers’ share prices have also fallen.Walter Crowley regularly buys goods from the warehouse, focusing mostly on discounted home improvement goods, which he resells to local contractors.Target’s stumbles have been an opportunity for people like Walter Crowley.Mr. Crowley regularly rents a U-Haul and drives back and forth to the liquidation warehouse from his home near Binghamton, N.Y.Mr. Crowley, who turns 54 next month, focuses mostly on discounted home improvement goods, which he resells to local contractors, like the multiple pallets of discontinued garage door openers, originally priced at $14,000 that he got for $600.But on a sweltering day earlier this month, he stood outside the warehouse in his U-Haul loading up on items from Target.“I saw its stock got tanked,” said Mr. Crowley, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and sweat pouring down his face. “It’s an ugly situation for them.”He bought several cribs, a set of sheets for his own house and a pink castle for a girl in his neighborhood who just turned 5.“I end up giving a lot of it away to my neighbors, to be honest,” he said. “Some people are barely getting by.”The buyers bid for the goods through online auctions and then drive to the warehouse to pick up their winnings.It’s a diverse group. There was a science teacher who stocked up on plastic parts for his class, as well as a woman who planned to resell her purchases — neon green Igloo coolers, a table saw, baby pajamas — in the Haitian and Jamaican communities of New York. She ships other items to Trinidad.The Pennsylvania warehouse, one of eight that Liquidity Service operates around the country, employs about 20 workers, some of whom have been hired on a temporary basis. The starting pay is $17.50 an hour.Charles Benincasa, a temporary worker at the warehouse, said he’s watched the boxes pile up and worries about the implications for the economy.Charles Benincasa, 39, is a temporary worker who has had numerous “warehousing” jobs, the most recent at the Chewy pet food distribution center in nearby Wilkes-Barre.Mr. Benincasa said his friends and family had gotten in the habit of returning many of the goods they buy online. But as he’s watched the boxes pile up in the Liquidity Services warehouse, he worries about the implications for the economy.“Companies are losing a lot of money,” he said. “There is no free lunch.” More

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    They Flocked to China for Boom Times. Now They’re Thinking Twice.

    A.H. Beard, a 123-year-old luxury mattress manufacturer based in Australia, started eyeing China around 2010. At the time, the family-owned company faced looming competition from low-cost, foreign-made mattresses in its home market. China, with its 1.4 billion consumers and a growing middle class with a taste for premium brands, seemed like a good place to expand.The choice paid off.A.H. Beard opened its first store there in 2013. Before the coronavirus pandemic, sales in the country were growing more than 30 percent a year. There are now 50 A.H. Beard stores across China, with plans to open 50 more. But like most foreign companies operating in China nowadays, A.H. Beard has started to think more carefully about its strategy.Beijing’s strict Covid-19 policy has exacted a heavy toll on business. The company’s exports into China are no longer on the rise.This month, Chinese officials announced that the economy grew at its slowest pace since the early days of the pandemic. Unemployment is high, the housing market is in crisis and nervous consumers — living under the constant threat of lockdowns and mass testing — are not spending.Now, the once resilient Chinese economy is looking shaky, and the companies that flocked to the country to partake in boom times are being confronted by a sobering reality: flat growth in what was once seen as a reliable economic opportunity.“I certainly don’t see China returning to the rates of growth that we had seen previously,” said Tony Pearson, chief executive of A.H. Beard.“I certainly don’t see China returning to the rates of growth that we had seen previously,” said Tony Pearson, chief executive of A.H. Beard.Matthew Abbott for The New York TimesA.H. Beard opened a flagship store in Shanghai in 2013.Matthew Abbott for The New York TimesThe cost of mattress materials and components, such as latex and natural fibers, has increased significantly.Matthew Abbott for The New York TimesSo far, most companies are staying the course, but there is a steady whiff of caution that did not exist just a few years ago.Geopolitical tensions and a U.S.-China trade war have unleashed punishing tariffs for some industries. Covid-19 has snarled the flow of goods, lifting the prices of almost everything and delaying shipments by months. China’s pandemic response of quarantines and lockdowns has kept customers at home and out of stores.A.H. Beard opened its flagship store with a local partner in Shanghai almost 10 years ago. And like any high-end brand, it rolled out products with prices that defy belief. China became the best-selling market for its top-of-the-line $75,000 mattress.Since then, the cost of shipping a container has jumped sixfold. The cost of mattress materials and components, such as latex and natural fibers, have increased significantly. Other worrying signs have emerged, including a housing slump. (New homes often mean new mattresses.)Mr. Pearson said he is hoping that the Chinese Communist Party congress later this year will clarify “the trajectory for China” and imbue consumers with more confidence. “The economy still has growth potential,” he said. “But there’s always a degree of risk.”After the 2008 financial crisis when the rest of the world retrenched, China emerged as an outlier and international businesses rushed in.European luxury brands erected gleaming stores in China’s biggest cities, while U.S. food and consumer goods companies jostled for supermarket shelf space. German car manufacturers opened dealerships, and South Korean and Japanese chip firms courted Chinese electronics makers. A booming construction market fueled demand for iron ore from Australia and Brazil.Chinese consumers rewarded those investments by opening their wallets. But the pandemic has rattled the confidence of many shoppers who now see rainy days ahead.Fang Wei, 34, said she has scaled back her spending since she left a job in 2020. In the past, she spent most of her salary on brands like Michael Kors, Coach and Valentino during frequent shopping trips.Even though she is employed again, working in advertising in Beijing, she now allocates a quarter of her salary on food, transportation and other living costs. She hands the rest to her mother, who puts the money in the bank.“Because I’m worried about being laid off, I transfer everything to my mother every month,” Ms. Fang said. “It’s very depressing to go from enjoying life to subsistence.”A more frugal Chinese consumer is a worry for foreign businesses, many of which offer products that are not the low-cost option but a premium alternative. An Jun-Min, chief executive of Ginseng by Pharm, a South Korean producer of ginseng products, said he, too, has noticed Chinese “wallets have gotten thinner.”Mr. An said sales for the company’s main product, a 2 ounce bottle of a ginseng drink that sells for $18, peaked before the pandemic. The company shipped 600,000 bottles into China and Hong Kong in 2019.There are 12,000 Adidas stores in China, up from 9,000 in 2015, but the company said it expects China revenue to “decline significantly” this year.Giulia Marchi for The New York TimesSales plunged in 2020 because it was hard to get products into the country during Covid lockdowns. Business has mostly bounced back, although it is still down 10 to 20 percent from the peak.While Mr. An said he is concerned about the economic slowdown, he remains optimistic that the market for health products in China, and a familiarity with ginseng — an aromatic root said to have health benefits — will continue to benefit sales. To hedge his bets, though, he is also seeking regulatory approval to sell in Europe.That is a far cry from the unbridled optimism of the past.In 2016, when China was its fastest growing and most profitable market, Kasper Rorsted, the chief executive at Adidas, declared that the country was “the star of the company.” Adidas invested aggressively to expand its foothold. It went from 9,000 stores in China in 2015 to its current 12,000, though only 500 are operated by Adidas. Then the music stopped.After initially projecting that sales in China would accelerate this year, Adidas ratcheted down expectations in May as Covid lockdowns continued to spread. The company said it now expects China revenue to “decline significantly” and that a sudden rebound is unlikely.For now, Adidas remains undeterred. Mr. Rorsted said on a call with analysts that the company is not planning to slash costs or pull back from the country. Instead, it will “do whatever we can to double down and accelerate the growth.”Many foreign companies had bet on the rise of a Chinese middle class as a dependable source of that growth. Bain & Company, a consulting firm, said it expects China to be the world’s largest luxury market by 2025, fueled in part by what Federica Levato, a senior partner, said is still “a big wave” of a rising middle class.Kamps Hardwoods, a Michigan-based manufacturer of lumber used in homes and furniture, said China provided an opportunity to expand — at first.Sarah Rice for The New York TimesRob Kukowski, the general manager of Kamps, said China is such a big buyer of U.S. lumber that the pain is felt by the entire industry when it stops spending.Sarah Rice for The New York TimesBy 2016, China accounted for 80 percent of Kamps’s sales.Sarah Rice for The New York TimesBut those kinds of predictions look less enticing for some foreign companies that once relied heavily on the Chinese market.Kamps Hardwoods, a Michigan-based manufacturer of kiln-treated lumber used for homes and furniture, seized on the opportunity to expand in China — at first. At a Chinese trade show in 2015, Rob Kukowski, the company’s general manager, said a Chinese buyer stunned him with a huge offer to buy enough stock to fill 99 shipping containers. The $2 million order of lumber accounted for four months’ worth of business for Kamps.Chinese buyers were so desperate for lumber back then that they would visit the company’s booth and refuse to leave until Mr. Kukowski accepted a million-dollar deal on the spot. By 2016, China accounted for 80 percent of the company’s sales.Kamps soon realized that it was hard to make a profit from the large Chinese orders because many buyers were not interested in quality and only wanted the cheapest possible price. The company started to focus its effort on finding customers in the United States and other overseas markets who were willing to pay more for a better product.It was fortuitous timing. When China raised tariffs on U.S. lumber in 2018 as part of a trade war, Kamps was better positioned to weather the downturn. Today, China accounts for only 10 percent of Kamps’s sales, but it still has a large indirect impact on the company. Mr. Kukowski said China is such a big buyer of U.S. lumber that a downward price war ensues throughout the industry when it stops spending.“With their purchasing power being so strong and so much of our product going into that market,” Mr. Kukowski said. “Our industry is going to run into significant problems if their economy slows.”Jin Yu Young More

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    Gas Prices Force Many to Rethink Driving, and Spending

    As summer trips beckon, some are traveling less, at least by car. And those candy bars at the convenience store may find fewer takers.KATY, Texas — Most Americans would gladly pay the $4.29 for a gallon of regular gas Buc-ee’s was charging this week on Interstate 10 between Houston and San Antonio, more than 50 cents below the national average.But with prices more than $1.50 a gallon higher than they were a year ago, even Texans are complaining, and changing their buying habits to make do.“It makes me so stressed out just thinking about buying gas,” said Nancy Oncken, a retired kindergarten teacher, as she filled up her station wagon on her way to join five cousins at a water park outside San Antonio for the long weekend. “It’s now always in the back of my mind to be conservative about what I buy.”When Ms. Oncken drives through Buc-ee’s, the well-known Texas-scale convenience store with enough gasoline pumps to fuel an army, she often buys a souvenir bumper sticker, tumbler or key chain adorned with the cartoonish bucktoothed beaver wearing a baseball cap. But this year, she said, she will keep a grip on her wallet.Drivers will get a bit of a break this Fourth of July weekend now that gasoline prices have eased about 15 cents a gallon over the last two weeks. But with the Russian invasion of Ukraine settling into a grinding war of attrition, constraining global energy supplies, gas prices are not likely to decline much more this summer.At $4.86 a gallon on Thursday, the national average price for regular gas was $1.67 above a year ago, according to the AAA motor club. The fuel prices are altering buying patterns, and there are early signs that people may be rethinking their driving.Economists report that travel spending remains strong this year because of pent-up demand after two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. But interviews with drivers at Buc-ee’s in Katy, Texas, suggest that consumer confidence is beginning to erode under the pressure of high prices for fuel, food and housing. Ms. Oncken and several others said the holiday weekend might be the only vacation they would take this summer, a sharp break from the past.A recent report by Mastercard SpendingPulse, which monitors national retail sales, showed that despite a roughly 60 percent increase in gasoline prices from last year, total spending at gas station convenience stores was up only 29 percent, suggesting that many like Ms. Oncken are compensating for gas prices by saving on little, whimsical indulgences.“Opting for a lower fuel grade, driving a bit less or skipping that slushy or candy bar in the store are part of a bigger picture of choices consumers are making every day in the face of higher prices,” said Michelle Meyer, U.S. chief economist at the Mastercard Economics Institute.The shock is particularly acute given that people grew accustomed to low gasoline prices during the pandemic, when oil prices collapsed from the decline in commuting and other economic activity.Understand Inflation and How It Impacts YouInflation 101: What’s driving inflation in the United States? What can slow the rapid price gains? Here’s what to know.Inflation Calculator: How you experience inflation can vary greatly depending on your spending habits. Answer these seven questions to estimate your personal inflation rate.Greedflation: Some experts say that big corporations are supercharging inflation by jacking up prices. We take a closer look at the issue. Changing Behaviors: From driving fewer miles to downgrading vacations, Americans are making changes to their spending because of inflation. Here’s how five households are coping.It will take several months, at least, to sort out all the effects of higher prices on consumer behavior. People are spending more at restaurants than a year ago, and sales of luxury goods remain high, according to Mastercard. But hotel industry executives say many who drive on vacation are choosing destinations closer to home to save on gas.That may be one reason for the modest drop in gasoline prices in recent weeks. Recent Energy Department data suggested that the volume of gasoline sold nationwide had dropped 2 percent or more from a year earlier. And auto dealers in Houston said customer interest in more fuel-efficient cars, as well as electric and hybrid vehicles, was growing, although shortages of parts have limited the supplies of new models.Some transportation and energy experts say the demand for gas has declined partly because more people are flying rather than driving on vacations this year than last, although rising ticket prices and airport delays may reverse that trend as the summer progresses. In some cities, more people are returning to mass transit as concerns over Covid ease.Inflation and a slowing in some areas of the economy may mean some businesses are cutting back on shipping or shortening their supply chains when possible to save fuel.Energy Department data suggested that gasoline sales had dropped 2 percent over the last year.Scott McIntyre for The New York TimesGiovanni Circella, a transportation expert at the University of California, Davis, said that over the years, short periods of high gas prices had not fundamentally changed driving habits since people still needed to commute to work and carry on daily chores like shopping and driving their children to school and activities.“But what will change is if the gas prices stay high for an extended period of time, Americans will start changing the type of cars they drive,” he said.A report released this week by RBC Capital Markets found that over the last 30 years, retail gasoline prices in the United States increased more than 30 percent year over year during 39 individual months. Of those months, demand fell 2 percent or more from the previous year only 12 times. “In short, protracted demand destruction events have historically been rare,” the RBC report concluded.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More

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    Consumer Spending Weaker Than Reported, a Bad Sign for the Economy

    Consumer spending was weaker in early 2022 than previously believed, a sign that cracks may be forming in a crucial pillar of the U.S. economy.Spending, adjusted for inflation, increased 0.5 percent in the first three months of the year, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. That was a sharp downward revision from the government’s earlier estimate of 0.8 percent growth, and a slowdown from the 0.6 percent growth in the final quarter of 2021. Spending on services rose significantly more slowly than initially reported, while spending on goods actually fell.Gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic output, shrank 0.4 percent in the first quarter, adjusted for inflation, the equivalent of a 1.6 percent annual rate of contraction. That was only slightly weaker than previously reported, because the government raised its estimate of how much companies added to their inventories, partly offsetting the weaker consumer spending.Even after the revision, consumer spending remained solid in the first quarter. But any deceleration is significant because consumers have been the engine of the economic recovery. Spending had appeared resilient in the face of the fastest inflation in a generation — a picture that looks at least somewhat different in light of the latest revisions.“That prior estimate of first-quarter G.D.P. was much more comfortable than today’s look,” said Michelle Meyer, chief U.S. economist for the Mastercard Economics Institute. “There is reason for more concern after looking at today’s report.”Economists in recent weeks have steadily lowered their forecasts of economic growth for the rest of the year. IHS Markit estimated on Thursday that G.D.P. would grow at a 0.1 percent annual rate in the second quarter; earlier this month, it expected the economy to grow at a 2.4 percent rate this quarter. Some forecasters now say it is possible that economic output will shrink for the second consecutive quarter — a common, though unofficial, definition of a recession.The National Bureau of Economic Research, the nation’s semiofficial arbiter of when business cycles begin and end, defines recessions differently, as “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months.”Most economists agree that, by that definition, the United States is not yet in a recession. But a growing number of economists believe that a recession is likely in the next year, as the Federal Reserve raises interest rates in a bid to tame inflation. More

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    Why Coupons Are Harder to Find Than Ever

    Jill Cataldo is a master of coupons.She began cutting them out to save a dollar here and 50 cents there in the Great Recession, when she had two children in diapers and money was tight. Starting with a training session at the library in her Chicago suburb, she shared what she learned with others, and now has a syndicated column and a website where she writes about coupon deals and other ways to spend less.The pandemic, however, upended Ms. Cataldo’s world. Paper coupon inserts in the Sunday newspaper seemed flimsier. Even increasingly popular digital coupons were hard to come by.“There are brands that I’ve followed for over a decade that are just not issuing a lot of coupons right now,” Ms. Cataldo said. “It’s kind of frustrating, because it’s something we came to count on for a long time.”Now the steepest rise in the cost of living in four decades is making bargains even more coveted. “With inflation, this is what should go up tremendously as a tool to help customers,” said Sanjay Dhar, a marketing professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.But that tool is getting ever harder to come by. In 2021, Kantar Media estimates, 168 billion circulated, across both print and digital formats. That was down from about 294 billion in 2015.The shrinking coupon market includes not just the number of coupons distributed but also the share turned in at checkout. Redemption rates declined to 0.5 percent of all print and digital coupons in 2020 from about 3.5 percent in the early 1980s, according to a paper by economists at Harvard University, Georgetown University and Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf.The economists see a larger phenomenon: Increasingly time-strapped consumers don’t want to deal with even small hassles to save a few dollars on toothpaste.“The declining use of coupons and the declining redemption rates indicate a fundamental shift in consumer shopping behavior,” the authors wrote. They added, “We view this as additional evidence that declining price sensitivity reflects a longer-run secular trend.”At the same time, mobile phones have made all kinds of other incentives possible, including cash-back rewards, points that can be redeemed for store credit and contest prizes.“Practitioners often want to get discounts to consumers in a seamless manner,” said Eric Anderson, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “It’s not clear that traditional coupons do this.”That explanation offers little consolation to people who’ve come to depend on coupons to keep their grocery costs down, like Ms. Cataldo’s readers.“I don’t think from the consumer perspective that they’re like, ‘Oh, we don’t care.’ We do care,” Ms. Cataldo said. “It’s just that we have fewer tools right now to play the game.”A Venerable IncentiveThe couponing industry as we know it started in the early 1970s when a Michigan printing company, Valassis Communications, began distributing booklets of discounts on particular products that could be redeemed at any store.Valassis would total up the slips of paper, and the manufacturer reimbursed the retailer for the discount. Soon, grocers saw the value of coupons in driving traffic to their own stores, and began newspaper inserts of their own. The number of print coupons distributed peaked in 1999 at 340 billion, as newspaper circulation also crested, according to Inmar Intelligence, the other large coupon settlement company, alongside Valassis.But a slide in redemption rates had already begun. It’s difficult to pin down why, but people close to the industry believe it’s related to the rise of the two-income household, as more women entered the work force. Ms. Cataldo remembers growing up in the 1980s, when, she said, her mother used coupons enthusiastically.“Back then it was a little bit of a different culture because we had so many stay-at-home parents who had time to do this,” she said. “It’s time that pays well, but you have to have that time, and if you are working eight hours a day, you probably don’t.”Coupon use enjoyed a resurgence during the recession of 2007-9, which left millions of people out of work much longer and with much less financial assistance than they would receive during the pandemic recession a decade later. “Couponing” became a widely used verb courtesy of the reality show “Extreme Couponing,” which brought people into the practice with promises of stackable discounts that could bring the cost of a shopping cart’s worth of purchases close to zero.But what delighted serious couponers dismayed manufacturers, which are focused on getting people to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise, not giving discounts to people who’d buy the product anyway. That’s why brands started pulling back on promotions and limiting the number of coupons that could be used in a given trip.At the same time, grocers and big-box stores were coming under pressure from e-commerce platforms like Amazon. They responded by beefing up their store brand offerings as well as asking companies like Procter & Gamble to lower prices on name-brand items.“They want to get the best deals so they are competitive at the shelf,” said Aimee Englert, who directs client strategy for consumer packaged goods companies at Valassis, now part of a company called Vericast. “What that ends up doing is constricting the budgets that manufacturers have to pull levers, like to provide a coupon.”As their wiggle room on discounts shrank, brands wanted to make sure they were squeezing as many extra purchases as possible out of their promotion dollars. The average value of coupons shrank, as did the time over which they could be used. And the rise of smartphones provided an opportunity that seemed far superior to blanketing neighborhoods with newsprint: Offers could be personalized and aimed at specific demographic profiles. Coupons could be linked to a supermarket loyalty card, which gave retailers data on whether the coupons prompted a shopper to switch brands.Greg Parks is another coupon blogger who got started in the wake of the Great Recession, looking to stretch his income to feed three children. Although he began with newspaper clippings all over his floor, he now does instructional videos exclusively using digital coupons, which can be used nationwide rather than in a single distribution area.Greg Parks is on the high end of coupon user sophistication.Luke Sharrett for The New York TimesMr. Parks at a CVS store where he often films videos on couponing.Luke Sharrett for The New York Times“I like to say that I’m a lazy couponer now,” Mr. Parks said. Plus, he has noticed that digital coupons cut down on dirty looks from cashiers when they have to process a stack of paper.“Some of them act like we’re stealing, or taking something from them,” Mr. Parks said. “They don’t want to deal with all those paper coupons, they’re such a headache. With digital, everything just automatically comes off.” (While only 5 percent of coupons distributed are digital, they represent about a third of all coupons redeemed, according to Inmar.)Mr. Parks, however, is on the high end of coupon user sophistication. Many people who depended most on print coupons — older shoppers on fixed incomes — may not have the computer or smartphone literacy to adopt the digital version. Dr. Dhar, the University of Chicago professor, said the switch to digital hit the wrong demographic.“That’s not the coupon-using population — they don’t use digital media very much,” said Dr. Dhar, who remembers surviving on coupons 30 years ago as a graduate student in Los Angeles. “A lot of this isn’t driven by the response to coupons. It’s driven by coupons not reaching the right people.”To be sure, manufacturers have not abandoned the pure reach of physical coupons. The free-standing insert still works as an advertising vehicle: In fact, the ideal outcome for a manufacturer is that a shopper sees a coupon and then goes to the store to buy the item without redeeming it.A Sudden Shake-UpIf coupons had been slowly dying for years, the pandemic delivered a sharp blow.Seemingly overnight, roiling supply chains and the lurch from office to home left consumers desperate to buy anything they could get their hands on; brand preferences went out the window. When inflation started to spike last year, not only did retailers have trouble keeping shelves stocked, they weren’t even sure they could maintain stable prices until the coupons expired.“The last thing those manufacturers want to do is put more incentives on those because it’s going to spike demand up even more,” said Spencer Baird, Inmar’s interim chief executive. “This is what we very consistently hear: ‘We’ve got a budget, we’re ready to go, but until we get my fill rate where it needs to be, I don’t want to mess up my supply chain.’”Use of even digital coupons sank in 2020, for the first time, before rebounding. While most of those are tethered to a specific retailer, the coupon industry is working on a universal standard that will allow shoppers to redeem digital coupons at any retailer that signs up.But there’s no guarantee that retailers will stick with coupons, when other incentives are gaining in popularity.Lisa Thompson works for Quotient, a company formerly known as Coupons.com, which started in 1998 as a website where you could print coupons rather than clipping them. The company is phasing out printable coupons, and the Coupons.com app already mostly offers cash-back promotions instead.“Honestly, it’s a dying form of savings, and we know that,” Ms. Thompson said. “A lot of my work has been working with the marketing team to make ‘coupon’ sound sexy.”Plenty of dedicated couponers still prefer the old-fashioned way.“I agree, it’s going down, and at some point it will die,” Ms. Cataldo said. “I’m not looking forward to that. But it’s not happening nearly as quickly as they thought it would.” More

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    Biden Casts Inflation as a Global Problem During a Visit to the Port of Los Angeles

    The visit to the nation’s busiest entry point for goods comes as President Biden struggles to show progress on resolving supply chain issues that are fueling inflation.LOS ANGELES — President Biden on Friday defended his administration’s efforts to deal with inflation, just hours after a new report showed a surprise spike in prices that puts new pressure on the White House to ease the burden on consumers.Mr. Biden used the Port of Los Angeles as a backdrop to highlight his fight against inflation, delivering a speech about how his team has tried to speed up the delivery of goods disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.“The job market is the strongest it’s been since World War II, notwithstanding inflation,” Mr. Biden said, standing on the battleship Iowa, a decommissioned warship that has been turned into a museum.With shipping containers piled up behind him, Mr. Biden emphasized that his administration had taken action last year to reduce congestion at ports, allowing 97 percent of all packages to be delivered on time during the holiday shopping season.But six months later, serious problems remain and persistent inflation has become a major political liability for Mr. Biden.The war in Ukraine has disrupted flows of food, fuel and minerals, adding to pandemic-related shortages and pushing inflation to multidecade highs. Data released on Friday morning showed inflation picking up again, rising 1 percent from the previous month. Compared with one year ago, consumer prices rose 8.6 percent, the largest annual increase since 1981.While some clogs in the supply chain look to be clearing, analysts say that trend may yet stall — or even reverse — in the months to come, as retailers enter a busier fall season and dockworkers on the West Coast renegotiate a labor contract that could lead to work slowdowns or a strike.Understand Inflation and How It Impacts YouInflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Greedflation: Some experts contend that big corporations are supercharging inflation by jacking up prices. We take a closer look at the issue. Inflation Calculator: How you experience inflation can vary greatly depending on your spending habits. Answer these seven questions to estimate your personal inflation rate.For Investors: At last, interest rates for money market funds have started to rise. But inflation means that in real terms, you’re still losing money.Mr. Biden said he understands that Americans are anxious.“They are anxious for good reason,” he said. But he stressed that inflation is largely the result of increases in the price of gasoline and food, and he blamed the price hikes in those goods on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.Mr. Biden argued that large price increases in the United States were part of a global problem with inflation and that Americans were in better shape than their counterparts elsewhere because of a strong jobs market and a declining budget deficit.He also lashed out at nine shipping companies that he said had used the global economic situation to increase prices by 1,000 percent, artificially adding to the cost of goods around the world. He did not name the companies.But he said they “have raised their prices by as much as 1,000 percent.”He called on Congress to crack down on shipping companies that raise prices.“The rip-off is over,” he said.Mr. Biden is correct that soaring inflation is a global problem. In a note to clients on Friday, Deutsche Bank Research said the United States ranked 48th for its inflation rate on a list of 111 countries, just above the middle of the pack.But that is little comfort to U.S. households struggling with rising costs.Analysts say the U.S. logistics industry is heading into its busier fall season, when retailers bring in products for back-to-school shopping and the holidays. Chinese exports are also on the rise as an extended coronavirus lockdown lifts in Shanghai.And, most crucially, dockworkers on the West Coast are renegotiating a labor contract with port terminal operators that expires at the end of this month. If they fail to reach an agreement, West Coast ports may see slowdowns or shutdowns that would delay deliveries and add to supply chain gridlock.Over the past two decades, labor negotiations led to at least three such slowdowns or stoppages that resulted in delays. In recent weeks, some companies that typically ship into the West Coast have begun routing some goods to the East or Gulf Coasts to try to avoid any logjams.Gene Seroka, the executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, said he expected labor talks to go beyond the July 1 contract expiry date, but downplayed the risks to trade.“It’s important to know, with all this cargo on the way, the rank-and-file dockworkers will be out on the job every day,” he said.“And the employers know they’ve got to get these products to market,” he added. “So we’re going to give these people some room. Let them negotiate in their space, and the rest of us are going to work on keeping the cargo and the economy moving.”Dockworkers on the West Coast, including at the Port of Los Angeles, are renegotiating a labor contract with port terminal operators that expires at the end of this month. Failure to reach an agreement could further delay deliveries.Stella Kalinina for The New York TimesMr. Biden has kept close relationships with labor unions and may hesitate to put pressure on dockworkers to conclude any talks. But a work slowdown or strike would be bad news for the administration, which has frequently come under attack about rising prices.By some metrics, supply chain pressures have been easing in recent weeks. The average global price to ship a 40-foot container of goods fell to $7,370 as of June 3, down from a peak of more than $11,000 in September, though that was still five times higher than before the pandemic began, according to the Freightos Baltic Index.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 5What is inflation? More

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    Retail sales rise for the fourth straight month as prices keep climbing.

    Retail sales rose 0.9 percent in April, increasing for the fourth consecutive month, as consumer prices continue to escalate at their fastest pace in four decades.The increase in spending in the United States last month follows a revised 1.4 percent month-over-month gain in March, when prices for gasoline soared amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Gas prices cooled down slightly in April but were still at elevated levels, while oil prices remain volatile.Consumers pulled back on spending at gas stations, where sales fell 2.7 percent in April, the Commerce Department reported on Tuesday, and the report showed that shopping at grocery stores and building material stores dropped last month.Sales at restaurants and bars were up 2 percent in April, while spending at department stores was up 0.2 percent. Spending at car dealers, which has been hampered by supply chain disruptions and a global computer chip shortage, rose 2.2 percent last month.Economists are laser-focused on upcoming reports on spending because they serve as indicators of how consumers are grappling with inflation and higher interest rates.“Despite the surge in prices weighing on their purchasing power, the U.S. consumer now appears to be single-handedly keeping the global economy afloat,” Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note.The Commerce Department’s new data, which isn’t adjusted for inflation, was an early estimate of spending during a month when prices rose 0.3 percent from the prior month. The rapid pace of inflation has led companies to raise prices for their goods to cover the higher costs of commodities, labor and transportation. Companies like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have introduced higher prices for their products, and airfares are also climbing.To combat inflation, the Federal Reserve started lifting interest rates from near zero in March. Economists are worried that if interest rates are raised too fast, the move could lead the economy into a recession by slowing down consumer demand too much.“To the extent that markets are worried about a growth slowdown, this is good news,” Chris Zaccarelli, chief investment officer for Independent Advisor Alliance, wrote in a note, referring to Tuesday’s report. “But it is also a further catalyst for the Fed to raise rates even higher, in order to get inflation under control.” More

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    Atlanta Apple Store Workers Are the First to Formally Seek a Union

    Employees at an Apple store in Atlanta filed a petition on Wednesday to hold a union election. If successful, the workers could form the first union at an Apple retail store in the United States.The move continues a recent trend of service-sector unionization in which unions have won elections at Starbucks, Amazon and REI locations.The workers are hoping to join the Communications Workers of America, which represents workers at companies like AT&T Mobility and Verizon, and has made a concerted push into the tech sector in recent years.The union says that about 100 workers at the store — at Cumberland Mall, in northwest Atlanta — are eligible to vote, including salespeople and repair technicians, and that over 70 percent of them have signed authorization cards indicating their support.In a statement, the union said Apple, like other tech employers, had effectively created a tiered work force that denied retail workers the pay, benefits and respect that workers earned at its corporate offices.Workers said they loved working at Apple but sometimes felt they were treated like second-class employees. “We want equal to what corporate actually gets,” said Sydney Rhodes, an employee at the store who is involved in the union campaign.Ms. Rhodes, who has worked at Apple for four years, said that she and many of her co-workers hoped to continue working for Apple for years to come but that it was often unclear how they could progress within the company. “Another reason why we’re working toward this union is for a more clear and concise way to grow, especially internally,” she added.An Apple spokesman said the company offered strong benefits, including health care coverage, tuition reimbursement and paid family leave, and a minimum pay rate of $20 per hour for retail workers.“We are fortunate to have incredible retail team members, and we deeply value everything they bring to Apple,” the spokesman said, but declined to comment on the union effort. The company would not say whether it would recognize the union voluntarily.Officials at the National Labor Relations Board will next determine whether there is sufficient interest among workers to hold an election — the bar is officially 30 percent — and set the terms for a potential vote. Both the union and the employer will have an opportunity to weigh in on the details, including the universe of employees eligible to take part and whether the vote should occur by mail or in person.Other unions, most notably Workers United, an affiliate of the giant Service Employees International Union that has led the organizing campaign at Starbucks, are also seeking to unionize Apple retail workers, of which there are tens of thousands in the United States.Workers at an Apple Store at Grand Central Terminal in New York City have begun to sign authorization cards that could lead to a filing for a union vote that would allow them to join Workers United. The move was reported over the weekend by The Washington Post.Activism and labor organizing at Apple have been building since last summer, when discontent over the company’s plan to require employees to return to the office snowballed into a broader movement, called #AppleToo. That movement aimed to highlight workplace problems like harassment, unequal pay and what workers described as a culture of secrecy that pervaded the company.“Apple workers across every line of business and around the world are using their voices to demand better treatment,” Janneke Parrish, one of the #AppleToo leaders, said of the union effort. Ms. Parrish has said Apple fired her in retaliation for her organizing. “I’m so happy to see workers taking this big step to stand up for their rights,” she said. Apple has disputed Ms. Parrish’s accusations.The #AppleToo movement included retail workers, who have said throughout the pandemic that Apple did not do enough to keep them safe from the coronavirus.Retail workers’ complaints escalated late last year when the Omicron variant spread rapidly throughout the country and at least 20 Apple stores had to close temporarily as a precaution or because so many of their workers had become infected that the stores could no longer operate. On Christmas Eve, several dozen Apple workers walked off their jobs to demand better pay and working conditions. Ms. Rhodes said that the effort at her store began in earnest last fall, and that her co-workers had taken encouragement from the union campaigns at companies like Starbucks and Amazon.Beyond its overtures at Apple, the communications workers union has had a presence at Google in recent years, helping workers form a so-called solidarity or minority union that enables them to coordinate actions without holding a union election and seeking certification from the labor board. Companies are not required to bargain with minority unions, as they are with more formal unions.The union also recently won a vote to represent about one dozen retail employees at Google Fiber stores in Kansas City, Mo., who are formally employed by a Google contractor. It is seeking to represent a few dozen Wisconsin-based quality assurance workers at the video-game maker Activision Blizzard, which Microsoft is acquiring, pending approval from regulators. More