The seasons are changing and this weekend Tami and I went out to stock up on simple things like decorative squashes (Pumpkins!), Halloween nick-nacks and other assorted items. Inevitably, we thought of other things that we needed and one stop led to another and we ended visiting a bunch of different stores. Here’s the list:

  • A local nursery/home goods store
  • A local card/gift shop
  • Pottery Barn Kids
  • The Apple Store
  • Baby Gap
  • Sports Authority

We exhibited the habits of The New Normal: we went into each store with a specific idea of what we wanted and left with pretty much what we had gone into the store for. But as we were driving home, I found myself trying to sort through a sense that something had been different in the shopping experience that had nothing to do with how we were shopping. Then it clicked.

Inventory.

Each of the stores had a perceptible difference in the amount and type of inventory they were carrying. It was most apparent at the local stores. The nursery, Mariani Gardens, had opened a multi-million new facility last year, and the floor had been chock-full of things. This weekend, the space was more sparsely filled. It was still elegant, and the pieces were of compelling quality, but the price points seemed lower than a year ago, and the amount of inventory was down decidedly. When I mentioned it to Tami, she said that they had actually just restocked for the fall season.

We had the same experience in the card store, where the selection of birthday cards was cut back by about 20%. One of the card racks, which had once been completely full, now had larger items, like calendars and books, in the slots.

At Sports Authority, where we went to get a NY Jets jersey for one of our kid’s birthday — we’re a split Jets/Giants family — the choice of jerseys had been cut down to two or three players for each of the key New York teams.

The other chains appeared to have shifted their inventory mix slightly, with more items at lower price points. Even at the Apple Store there was a change: they seemed to have less stock of accessories, while an increasing amount of floor space was given over to the high margin inventory that sells.

Through our shopping excursion, the sense of abundance that was so prevalent just a year ago had shifted. For the small merchants, the clear sense was that they were going to conserve cash as they made the shift from summer to the holiday shopping season. For the large merchants, the sense was that they were going to focus on goods and price points that made buying easier for the consumer.

Anecdotal evidence, for sure, but experience that aligns with the broad trends all the economic data points to: a cautious consumer, suppressed retail markets, a shift in purchasing patterns and diminished demand for manufacturing capacity.