Consumers are buying fewer discretionary goods and returning more. To clear their shelves, retailers are selling to liquidators at steep discounts.
The warehouse in Pittston, Pa., run by Liquidity Services, a company that collects retailers’ unwanted and returned goods.Credit…
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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.
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.
Worrying outlook. Amid persistently high inflation, rising consumer prices and declining spending, the American economy is showing clear signs of slowing down, fueling concerns about a potential recession. Here are other eight measures signaling trouble ahead:
Retail sales. The latest report from the Commerce Department showed that retail sales fell 0.3 percent in May, and rose less in April than initially believed.
Consumer confidence. In June, the University of Michigan’s survey of consumer sentiment hit its lowest level in its 70-year history, with nearly half of respondents saying inflation is eroding their standard of living.
The housing market. Demand for real estate has decreased, and construction of new homes is slowing. These trends could continue as interest rates rise, and real estate companies, including Compass and Redfin, have laid off employees in anticipation of a downturn in the housing market.
Start-up funding. Investments in start-ups have declined to their lowest level since 2019, dropping 23 percent over the last three months, to $62.3 billion.
The stock market. The S&P 500 had its worst first half of a year since 1970, and it is down nearly 19 percent since January. Every sector of the index beyond energy is down from the beginning of the year.
Copper. A commodity seen by analysts as a measure of sentiment about the global economy — because of its widespread use in buildings, cars and other products — copper is down more than 20 percent since January, hitting a 17-month low on July 1.
Oil. Crude prices are up this year, in part because of supply constraints resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but they have recently started to waver as investors worry about growth.
The bond market. Long-term interest rates in government bonds have fallen below short-term rates, an unusual occurrence that traders call a yield-curve inversion. It suggests that bond investors are expecting an economic slowdown.
“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.
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.
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.
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 multiple pallets of discontinued garage door openers, tiles and flooring.
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, 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.”