Lower, slower income tax refunds that have dragged on retail sales this year are disproportionately hurting upscale stores, since high-income shoppers are more likely to get an unexpected bill from the Internal Revenue Service under changes backed by President Trump and congressional Republicans.
February revenue at U.S. retailers fell 0.2 percent from the month before to $506 billion, the Census Bureau said Monday, and merchants placed much of the blame on cold weather, stock market fluctuations, and shrinking refunds after a GOP-led tax overhaul that eliminated or cut many of the deductions once claimed by people earning $100,000 a year or more.
Those changes, and Treasury Department efforts to buoy take-home pay through adjustments to withholding tables, left some taxpayers getting little to no money back from the IRS and often having to make surprise payments.
“We see the most risk to households in the upper-income demographics, particularly those that live on the coasts, as they likely get impacted” by limits on state and local tax deductions, said Michael Lasser, an analyst with Swiss lender UBS. That weighs on retailers such as Restoration Hardware and Williams-Sonoma, while leaving discount stores such as Walmart unfazed, he said.
It’s “something that we’re watching closely,” Jack Preston, senior vice president for finance at Corte Madera, Calif.-based Restoration Hardware, told investors and analysts last week. “We’ve heard anecdotes of people being surprised with the tax bills as they prepare their tax returns.”
Overall, however, store owners remain optimistic about the rest of 2019, according to the National Retail Federation, which represents businesses contributing $2.6 trillion a year to the U.S. economy. The group’s chief economist, Jack Kleinhenz, noted that original estimates for January sales were revised upward and that online merchants saw gains compared with both the previous month and February 2018.
“The consumer has not forsaken the economy as some previously claimed,” he said in a statement. “We still expect growth to pick up, fueled by strong fundamentals like job and wage growth.”
The jobless rate remained at 3.8 percent in February, near a 50-year low, and average hourly pay grew 3.4 percent to $27.66, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.