Why is Wal-Mart worried? Payroll tax could cut consumer spending.

Recent reports forecast lower spending for this year, anticipating that the restored payroll tax will impact consumers' wallets, especially low-income earners. Wal-Mart is adjusting its strategy.

Damian Dovarganes/AP/File
Eva Cevallos shops at Wal-Mart during the Thanksgiving Pre-Black Friday in Rosemead, Calif. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. offered a weak business outlook Thursday as new economic challenges for its low-income shoppers start to take a toll.

Retailers are preparing for a triple whammy as the restoration of the payroll tax, surging gas prices, and stagnant employment and wages take a bite out of consumers’ disposable income, leaving them with less cash to spend on clothing, groceries, and eating out.

As a result, more than three years after the recession officially ended, American consumers might be preparing to downshift again, if only slightly, with low-income consumers hit the hardest. Sensing consumer trepidation, retailers are scrambling to adjust.

Retailers, restaurants, and consumer goods companies like Wal-Mart are lowering sales forecasts and adjusting marketing campaigns ahead of expectations that consumers will slash spending, The Wall Street Journal reports.

In a survey released Thursday, the National Retail Federation (NRF) said some 46 percent of consumers plan to spend less as a result of the payroll tax increase. One-third said they will reduce dining out and one-quarter will spend less on “little luxuries,” like manicures and trips to coffee shops.

“A smaller paycheck due to the fiscal cliff deal early last month, higher gas prices, low consumer confidence and ongoing uncertainty about our nation’s fiscal health is negatively impacting consumers and businesses across the country,” Matthew Shay, president and chief executive officer of the NRF, said in a statement.

Originally enacted in December 2010 to help taxpayers weather the recession and to spur economic activity, the payroll tax cut expired Jan. 1 of this year. The restoration of the tax effectively raised the rate from 4.2 percent in 2012 to 6.2 percent in 2013, shaving 2 percent from consumers’ take-home pay.

That means Americans making $50,000 a year will pay $83 more in taxes each month, almost $1,000 more each year. Those making $75,000 will pay $125 more each month, or $1,500 more each year. As retailers see it, that’s $1,500 less a consumer has to spend on groceries, household goods, and dining out.

Multiply that by 153.6 million people in the labor force and retailers start to panic. According to an estimate by Citigroup, the expiration of the payroll tax cut will move $110 billion out of consumers’ pockets.

For high-end consumers, the payroll tax may not change a thing, and for many middle-income consumers, it will likely result in only a subtle shift. But the impact is most likely to be felt among low-income consumers and the businesses they tend to frequent, like Wal-Mart.

“It’s a big deal,” says Morgan Housley, a macroeconomic analyst with Motley Fool, an online financial education website. “The biggest impact is on lower-income households since the payroll tax is regressive, only applying to the first $113,000 of income. Wealthier households don't feel the same pinch because the tax doesn't hit all of their income. Lower-income households also spend a larger share of their income than wealthier consumers.… Low-income families are in one of the toughest spots they’ve been in since 2009.”

Combine that with stagnant employment and wages, as well as soaring gas prices – gas is up 50 cents a gallon in the past month alone – and consumers start to feel the pinch, says Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, a consumer information service.

“Those who are living paycheck-to-paycheck, spending all they’ve got, those are the folks who are going to be hit the most,” Mr. Dworsky says.

Retailers are also bracing for the hit, says Mr. Housel.

“The big retailers like Wal-Mart are very good at reading customers' shopping habits and adjusting quickly,” he says. “You'll see stores adjusting inventory toward lower-price items and smaller-packaged goods.”

Case in point: McDonald’s is promoting its Dollar Menu, Burger King slashed its Whopper Jr. burger from $2 to $1.29, Tyson Foods is ordering more budget-friendly chicken and lower-priced cuts of meat, and Wal-Mart is stocking shelves with cheaper goods and smaller packages of bulk items, reports The Wall Street Journal.

“Any industry that focuses on low-income consumers starved for value will see the biggest hit – discount retail and dollar stores, for example,” adds Housel.

Already, Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, had the worst start to a month in seven years and described February sales as “a total disaster,” according to internal company e-mails obtained by Bloomberg News

Despite the doom-and-gloom predictions, however, some analysts say it’s unlikely the restoration of the payroll tax will wreak havoc on the economy. After all, retail sales inched up 0.1 percent in January in spite of the tax restoration.

“Although the payroll tax hike has taken a chunk out of wages across the country and sent the retail sector into a panic, it doesn't look like the tax will hurt all that bad in the end,” says analyst Dan Carroll in a recent Motley Fool column. “With consumers spending much of the payroll tax holiday's two years getting a handle on debt and auto sales continuing to shine despite the tax holiday's expiration, the payroll tax hike won't be able to kill the economy's momentum.”

But Dworsky still expects consumers and retailers will be negatively affected.

“Consumers may cut back and buy less, eat out less, buy one less dress, one fewer pair of shoes, maybe join Costco,” says Dworsky.

If there is a negative impact, it is likely to be long-lasting.

“It's safe to say that whatever negative impact the restoration of the tax has on consumer spending will be permanent,” says Housel. “There's nothing consumers can do to avoid it, and without leveraging back up on debt, it will be a permanent impact on spending.”

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