Surging prices force consumers to ask: Can I live without it?

A pedestrian carries shopping bags in the Herald Square area of New York, U.S., on Wednesday, April 13, 2022.

Calla Kessler | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Sandy Magny plans to take her teenage daughter to West Palm Beach, Florida, this summer, even though airfares are surging.

It won’t be cheap, but Magny doesn’t want to miss out on visiting her family. The 40-year-old paralegal, who lives in the Bronx and works in the financial district of Manhattan, is finding there are other things she can do without.

“I do bring lunch more,” she said. “I could make coffee in the office.”

Magny is one of millions of people starting to shift where her dollars go after two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. Consumer prices have increased at the fastest clip in four decades. The cost of everything from housing to a latte is on the rise, begging the questions: When — and where — will consumers cut spending?

Some companies are already feeling the impact as they try to pass higher costs along to customers.

Amazon‘s most recent quarterly sales grew at the slowest pace since the 2001 dot-com bust. Netflix lost subscribers in the last quarter for the first time in more than a decade. Video game maker Activision Blizzard, home appliance giant Whirlpool and 1-800-Flowers all reported weaker sales in the last quarter.

Meanwhile, companies from Ford to McDonald’s to Kraft Heinz to United Airlines have reported resilient demand as consumers keep spending in spite of higher prices.

The changes in consumer behavior have some executives on edge.

“We do believe that the consumer is going to be spending,” Macy‘s CFO Adrian Mitchell said at JP Morgan’s Retail Round-Up last month. “But are they going to be spending on discretionary items that we sell, or are they going to be spending on an airline ticket to Florida, or travel, or going out to restaurants more?” 

Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey told CNBC last week that customers won’t “swallow inflation endlessly.” 

Consumer spending, as measured by the Commerce Department, rose a seasonally-adjusted 1.1% in March. And spending remains strong even among low-income households with an annual income of less than $50,000, according to Bank of America data. (The data exclude households that do not have access to cards.)

But consumer confidence, a measure of shoppers’ sentiments around market conditions reported by The Conference Board, ticked lower in April.

“We’re not really seeing many signs of slowdown, despite the worries that are happening in the market,” said Anna Zhou, a U.S. economist for Bank of America.

One reason is the amount of money that people socked away during the pandemic. On average, low-income households have $3,000 in their savings and checking accounts – nearly double what they had at the start of 2019, according to the Bank of America’s internal data. That has given consumers a buffer, even as they pay more at the gas pump and grocery store, Zhou said.

Only the good stuff

Many customers aren’t only spending, but are finding themselves increasingly willing to splurge, whether on a higher-end pair of Levi‘s jeans or a first-class seat on a Delta Air Lines flight.

Apple on Thursday reported a “record level of upgraders” during the first three months of the year as users opted for its more premium iPhones, but warned about the impact of lockdowns in China. And as automakers raise prices to reflect tight inventory from global supply chain issues, car-seekers aren’t getting scared off.

Ford CFO John Lawler said this week that despite price increases, the company is still seeing exceptionally strong demand for its newest products, ranging from the small Maverick pickup, which starts around $20,000, to the electric Mustang Mach-E crossover, which in higher trims can cost well over $60,000. It’s already sold out for the 2022 model year.

United, Delta and Southwest Airlines are predicting 2022 profits thanks to seemingly insatiable demand from customers after two brutal pandemic years, both for leisure and business travel. Their own staffing constraints are holding them back flying even more.

U.S. round-trip domestic airfare for travel between Memorial Day and Labor Day averaged $526, up more than 21% from 2019, according to Airlines Reporting Corp.’s data from travel agencies.

“The demand environment is the strongest it’s been in my 30 years in the industry,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said in an April 20 earnings release.

Travelers walk through Terminal A at Orlando International Airport on Christmas Day, Saturday, December 25, 2021.

Stephen M. Dowell | Orlando Sentinel | Getty Images

Levi Strauss & Co. Chief Executive Officer Chip Bergh told CNBC last month that in spite of rising prices, consumers weren’t trading down to less-expensive denim. Levi reaffirmed its outlook for fiscal 2022, which calls for revenue to grow between 11% and 13% from the prior year. 

But signs are emerging that consumer appetite might be nearing its limit.

Domestic U.S. airline bookings in the first two weeks of April fell 2% compared with the previous two weeks, the first decline over such a timeframe this year, according to Adobe Analytics. In March, bookings rose 12% from 2019, but customer spending on those tickets soared 28%.

March restaurant traffic fell 1.7%, according to industry tracker Black Box Intelligence. Fine dining, upscale casual and family dining establishments saw the biggest jump in sales growth, but the segments are still trying to claw back from pandemic lows.

Jodi Klobus a 58-year-old mother of three and grandmother of four who lives outside of Albany, N.Y., told CNBC she and her husband, a retired New York City police officer, used to dine out twice a week. Now that their meals, and everything else, cost more, they’ve scaled back to twice a month.

“I feel it in the pocketbook,” Klobus said.

Challenges ahead in 2023

And there are other risks looming that could crimp consumer spending, even if the impact isn’t immediate. Rents are marching higher and property taxes haven’t fully caught up to skyrocketing home values.

The Federal Reserve is aiming to tackle inflation by raising interest rates. That translates to higher borrowing costs for homebuyers and credit card users.

In the fourth quarter, U.S. credit card balances rose by $52 billion, the biggest quarterly jump in 22 years of New York Fed data, but they are still down $71 billion from the end of 2019.

U.S. credit card delinquency rates rose to 1.62% from a more than three-decade low of 1.48% in the second quarter of last year, still far from the 6.6% peak hit in the first quarter of 2009, the tail-end of the Great Recession, according to the St. Louis Fed.

“For this year, consumer spending should remain resilient,” said Zhou, the Bank of America economist. “For next year, it’s a little less certain – and certainly toward the second half of next year, that’s when risk of more of a slowdown in consumer can arise.”

I just complain about the prices.

Cindy Maher

of Bloomfield, Connecticut

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun on Wednesday said demand for new planes from airlines is recovering thanks to a resurgence of travel demand. Yet it’s unclear whether Americans will keep splurging on trips in the months ahead or will hit a point when they’ll cut back.

“That second year, when inflation begins to take a toll on consumers’ pocket, that is when those numbers really begin to matter to us,” Calhoun said in an interview with CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

For the moment, many consumers, like Cindy Maher, a 58-year-old who owns a leadership development consulting firm and lives in Bloomfield, Connecticut, feel comfortable enough to maintain their spending habits.

“I’m not cutting back,” she said. “I just complain about the prices.”

Maher said she’s noticed nearly $7 loaves of bread and that it costs $70 to fill up the tank of her car. But she said in her two-income household, she can absorb those costs.

“My heart goes out to those who have low-paying jobs,” she said.

–CNBC’s Amelia Lucas and John Rosevear contributed to this article.

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