UAW activists years ago helped usher in a vastly more equal society. Can history repeat?
Can the widening gap between America’s most affluent and everyone else be impacting the clothes on our backs? You bet. Who’s saying so? Insiders in America’s apparel industry.
“Discussions about income inequality may seem an abstract concern,” one of those insiders, Robert Antoshak, wrote earlier this week in Just-Style, an industry trade journal. But inequality brings “real-world consequences” that have “our industry standing in the balance.”
Antoshak and other thoughtful analysts are buzzing about a new report from the national consulting firm Deloitte. Researchers at that firm spent “the better part of a year” looking at how the last decade has impacted retail in America. They surveyed consumers, interviewed widely within the retail industry, and studied the underlying economic data.
All that work kept bringing Deloitte back to what the firm sees as the central retail story of the past ten years: growing inequality.
On the surface, Deloitte observes in The Great Retail Bifurcation, things don’t look so bad economically. Unemployment has dropped, housing has stabilized, and median incomes in the United States now even slightly surpass income levels back in 2007.
But all these hopeful stats, says Deloitte, shade what has “actually been an abysmal decade for most Americans.” The bottom 80 percent of U.S. households have experienced, the consultant firm details, “a dramatic worsening of their financial situation.”
The biggest problem the nation faces? A “vastly disproportionate share in income growth,” Deloitte explains, “has gone to high-income households.”
Households in America’s most affluent 20 percent, the firm notes, have pocketed almost all the nation’s gains from a rising stock market. These households own $35 of every $36 of stock. And the richest of these affluent, the top 1 percent, are doing the best of all. In 2017, the Deloitte researchers point out, top 1 percenters “grabbed 82 percent of all wealth created in the United States.”
Stats like these in the new Deloitte report tell what has become a familiar story. But the Deloitte researchers break new ground by diving into how exactly rising inequality is changing the consuming lives of America’s struggling low- and middle-income households.
Basic necessities, Deloitte relates, now “take up more than 100 percent of a low-income family’s budget.” In other words, Americans who average under $50,000 in annual income essentially have no discretionary income. These Americans live in the financial red, 7 percent in the red 12 years ago and 23 percent in 2016, the most recent year with stats available.
Households making between $50,000 and $100,000 annually are doing somewhat better. They have on average 39 percent of their income available for discretionary spending. But this share hasn’t increased since 2007. Nor has the total amount of discretionary dollars that middle-income households have available for spending. Middle-income Americans have, in short, experienced total economic stagnation over the past decade.
But the better label, the Deloitte study helps us see, might be “squeezed stagnation” because some categories of consumer spending considered “discretionary” — like mobile phone data plans — actually amount to necessities. Doubt that? Try operating effectively in America today without a mobile phone.
The bottom line for Deloitte: Only 20 percent of U.S. consumers rate as “better off in 2016 than they were in 2007,” and our bottom 80 percent has “precious little income left to spend on discretionary retail categories.”
The disparate impact of all this on American retail has been incredibly stark. Between 2013 and 2018, “high-end” retailers saw an average annual revenue growth rate of 81 percent. Discount retailer revenue grew at half that rate, 37 percent. Mid-range retailers went nowhere. They averaged 2 percent real annual growth.
The figures turn even starker when Deloitte looked at “net store openings,” the difference between the number of retail stores opened and the number closed. In the years from 2015 to 2017, the high-end retail sector registered a plus 109, and the “price-based” discount sector saw a plus 263.
Retail outlets serving America’s middle-income consumers ended up minus 108.
Deloitte ends its analysis with a stirring call to retail arms. Yes, we do have a deeply bifurcated retail market, but “those retailers willing to embrace the change,” the firm believes, will surely “have the potential to thrive.”
Apparel retail analyst Robert Antoshak, an industry veteran with over 30 years experience, sees the Deloitte data through a far less sanguine lens. He’s asking his apparel industry colleagues to focus on the “direct correlation between retail sales performance and the relative economic health of customers.”
“Our industry has mimicked what we’ve seen with society as a whole,” Antoshak relates. “The top is doing well, while the middle is stagnating if not shrinking, while the bottom is growing. It’s like our industry is splitting into a business catering to the haves and have-nots.”
Down the road, that split won’t be good for the apparel trade.
“Sure, there’s a high-end of the retail industry — and many firms succeed in selling jeans for $300/pair or more,” Antoshak acknowledges. “But for every high-end jean sold, there are dozens of cheaply made products sold at steep discounts throughout the retail chain.”
This growing volume of cheaply made products, he goes on, is feeding “fast fashion,” a “constant churn of often poorly designed and made apparel supported by razor-thin margins and predicated on a continuous flow of lower-income customers to buy the next iteration of cheap jeans, T-shirts or blouses.”
Welcome to America’s retail apparel future. Shoddy clothes for those who lead lives of “stagnation and struggle,” classy threads for everyone else.
Want to feel better about how you’re going to dress and look? Help make America more equal.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest book: The Case for a Maximum Wage. Among his other books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.