A worker carries bananas inside the Walmart SuperCenter in North Bergen, New Jersey.
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez | AP
For some shoppers who already struggle to cover grocery bills, the budget is getting tighter.
This month, pandemic-related emergency funding from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, is ending in most states, leaving many low-income families with less to spend on food.
More than 41 million Americans receive funding for food through the federal program. For those households, it will amount to at least $95 less per month to spend on groceries. Yet for many families, the drop will be even steeper since the government assistance scales up to adjust for household size and income.
For grocers like Kroger, big-box players like Walmart and discounters like Dollar General, the drop in SNAP dollars adds to an already long list of worries about the year ahead. It’s likely to pressure a weakening part of retailers’ business: sales of discretionary merchandise, which are crucial categories for retailers, as they tend to drive higher profits.
Major companies, including Best Buy, Macy’s and Target, have shared cautious outlooks for the year, saying shoppers across incomes have become more careful about spending on items such as clothing or consumer electronics as they pay more for necessities such as housing and food.
Food, in particular, has emerged as one of the hardest-hit inflation categories, up 10.2% year-over-year as of February, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“You still have to feed the same number of mouths, but you have to make choices,” said Karen Short, a retail analyst for Credit Suisse.
“So what you’re doing is you’re definitely having to cut back on discretionary,” she said.
The stretch has made it impossible for some to afford even basic items. It’s still too early to see the full impact of the reduced SNAP benefits, said North Texas Food Bank CEO Trisha Cunningham, but food pantries in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have started to see more first-time guests. The nonprofit helps stock shelves at pantries that serve 13 counties.
Demand for meals has ballooned, even from pandemic levels, she said. The nonprofit used to provide about 7 million meals per month before the pandemic and now provides between 11 million and 12 millions meals per month.
“We knew these [extra SNAP funds] were going away and they were going to be sunsetted,” she said. “But what we didn’t know is that we were going to have the impact of inflation to deal with on top of this.”
So far, retail sales in the first two months of the year have proven resilient, even as consumers contend with inflation and follow a stimulus-fueled boom in spending in the early years of the pandemic. On a year-over-year basis, retail spending was up 17.6% in February, according to the Commerce Department.
Some of those higher sales have come from higher prices. The annual inflation rate is at 6% as of February, according to the Labor Department’s tracking of the consumer price index, which measures a broad mix of goods and services. That index has also gotten a lift from restaurant and bar spending, which has bounced back from earlier in the pandemic and begun to compete more with money spent on goods.
Yet retailers themselves have pointed out cracks in consumer health, noting rising credit card balances, more sales of lower-priced private label brands and shoppers’ heightened response to discounts and promotions.
Some retailers mentioned the SNAP funding decrease on earnings calls, too.
Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen called it “a meaningful headwind for the balance of the year.”
“We’re hopeful that everybody will work together to continue or find additional money,” he said on the company’s earnings call with investors earlier this month. “But as you know, because of inflation, there’s a lot of people whose budget is under strain.”
Credit Suisse’s Short said for lower-income families, the food cost squeeze comes on top of climbing expenses for nearly everything else, whether that’s paying the electric bill or filling up the gas tank.
“I don’t think I could tell you what a tailwind is for the consumer,” she said. “There just isn’t a single tailwind in my view.”
Emergency allotments of SNAP benefits previously ended in 18 states, which could preview the effect of the decreased funding nationwide. In a research note for Credit Suisse, Short found an average decline in SNAP spending of 28% across several retailers from the date the additional funding ended.
Some grocers and big-box retailers could feel the impact more than others. According to an analysis by Credit Suisse, Grocery Outlet has the highest exposure to SNAP with an estimated 13% of its 2021 sales coming from the program. That’s followed by BJ’s Wholesale with about 9%, Dollar General at about 9%, Dollar Tree at about 7%, Walmart’s U.S. business with 5.5% and Kroger with about 5%, according to the bank’s estimates, which were based on company filings and government data.
Retailers that draw a higher-income customer base, such as Target and Costco, should feel comparatively less effect, Short said. If nothing else, the dwindling SNAP dollars could shift shoppers from one retailer to another, she said, as major players seek to grab up market share and undercut on prices.
Another factor could make for a bumpier start to retailers’ fiscal year, which typically kicks off in late January or early February: Tax refunds are trending smaller this year.
The average refund amount was $2,972, down 11% from an average payment of $3,352 as of the same point in last year’s filing season, according to IRS data as of the week of March 10. That average payout could still change over time, though, as the IRS continues to process millions of Americans’ returns ahead of the mid-April deadline.
Dollar General Chief Financial Officer John Garratt said on an earnings call this month that the discounter is monitoring how its shoppers respond to the winding down of emergency SNAP benefits and lower tax refunds.
He said stores did not see a change in sales patterns when emergency SNAP funds previously ended in some states, but he added that “the customer is in a different place now.”
Tax refunds can act as a cash infusion for retailers, as some people spring for big-ticket items like a pair of brand-name sneakers or a sleek new TV, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry advisor for The NPD Group, a market research company.
This year, though, even if people get their regular refund, they may use it to pay bills or whittle down debt, he said.
One bright spot for retailers could be an 8.7% cost-of-living increase in Social Security payments. Starting in January, recipients received on average $140 more per month.
However, Cohen said, the cash influx might not be enough to offset pressure on younger consumers, particularly those between ages 18 and 24, who have just started jobs and face milestone expenses like signing a lease or buying a car.
“Everything’s costing them so much more for the early, big spends of their consumer career,” he said.