Where Walmart, Amazon and Target are spending billions slowing the economy

A Walmart employee loads a robotic warehouse tool with an empty shopping cart to be filled with a customer’s online order at a Walmart micro-fulfillment center in Salem, Massachusetts January 8, 2020.

Boston Globe | Boston Globe | Getty Images

When the economy slows, the classic response for consumer companies is to cut back: slow hiring, potentially laying off employees, cutting back on marketing, or even slowing the pace of technology investment and postponing projects until business picks up again.

But that’s not at all what America’s struggling retail sector is doing this year.

With the S&P Retail Index down nearly 30% this year, most of the industry is increasing capital spending investments by double digits, including industry leaders Walmart and Amazon.com. Among the top performers, only struggling apparel maker Gap and hardware store chain Lowe’s fare well. At electronics retailer Best Buy, profit fell by more than half in the first half of the year – but investments rose by 37 percent.

“There’s definitely concern and awareness of costs, but prioritization is happening,” said Thomas O’Connor, vice president of supply chain-consumer retail research at consultancy Gartner. “A lesson has been learned from the aftermath of the financial crisis,” said O’Connor.

The selection? Investments from high-spending leaders like Walmart, Amazon and Home Depot are likely to cause customers to be drawn away from weaker peers next year, when cash flow from consumer discretionary is expected to recover from a year-long drought in 2022 and shopping after spending on Revive merchandise is actually shrunk early this year.

After the 2007-2009 downturn, 60 companies classified by Gartner as “efficient growth companies” that invested during the crisis saw their earnings double between 2009 and 2015, while other companies’ earnings were little changed, according to a 2019 report 1,200 US and European companies.

Companies have taken this data to heart. A recent Gartner survey of finance leaders across all industries shows that investing in technology and human resources are the latest spending companies are looking to cut as the economy struggles to prevent recent inflation from triggering a new recession. Budgets for mergers, environmental sustainability plans, and even product innovation are taking a back seat, Gartner data shows.

Today, some retailers are improving the way supply chains work between stores and their suppliers. That’s a focus at Home Depot, for example. Others, like Walmart, are striving to improve in-store operations so shelves are restocked faster and fewer lost sales.

The trend toward more investment has been developing for a decade but has been catalyzed by the Covid pandemic, said Progressive Policy Institute economist Michael Mandel.

“Even before the pandemic, retailers were moving from investing in structure to actively investing in equipment, technology and software,” Mandel said. “[Between 2010 and 2020]Software investment in the retail sector increased by 123%, compared to a 16% increase in manufacturing.”

At Walmart, money is pouring into initiatives like VizPick, an augmented reality system that connects to workers’ phones and allows employees to restock shelves faster. The company increased its capital expenditures by 50% to $7.5 billion in the first half of its fiscal year, which ends in January. The investment budget is expected to grow 26 percent to $16.5 billion this year, said Arun Sundaram, an analyst at CFRA Research.

“The pandemic has obviously changed the entire retail environment,” Sundaram said, forcing Walmart and others to be efficient in their back offices and make even more use of online channels and in-store pickup options. “As a result, Walmart and all other retailers have improved their supply chains. You see more automation, less manual picking [in warehouses] and more robots.”

Last week Amazon announced its latest acquisition of warehouse robots, Belgian company Cloostermans, which offers technology to move and stack heavy pallets and goods, as well as pack products together for delivery.

Home Depot’s campaign to overhaul its supply chain has been going on for several years, O’Connor said. According to the company’s financials, the One Supply Chain project is hurting profits for now, but it’s central to both operational efficiencies and a key strategic goal — creating deeper bonds with professional contractors who spend far more than they do Home improvement who were the bread and butter of Home Depot.

“To serve our professionals, it’s really about removing friction through a variety of enhanced product offerings and features,” executive vice president Hector Padilla told analysts on Home Depot’s second-quarter conference call. “These new assets in the supply chain allow us to do this at a different level.”

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Some retailers are more focused on refreshing an aging private label. At Kohl’s, the highlight of this year’s investment budget is an expansion of the company’s relationship with Sephora, which is adding convenience stores to Kohl’s 400 stores this year. The partnership helps the mid-tier retailer add some flair to its otherwise stodgy image, which contributed to its relatively weak sales growth in the first half of the year, said Landon Luxembourg, retail expert at consultancy Third Bridge. Investments in the first half of the year have more than doubled at Kohl’s this year.

About $220 million of the increase in Kohl’s spending was related to investments in beauty inventory to support the 400 Sephora stores opening in 2022, CFO Jill Timm said. “We’re going to continue that next year. … We look forward to working with Sephora on this solution for all of our stores,” she told analysts at the company’s recent earnings announcement in mid-August.

Target is spending $5 billion this year to add 30 stores and modernize another 200, bringing the number of stores renovated since 2017 to more than half the chain. It’s also expanding on its own beauty partnership, first unveiled in 2020 with Ulta Beauty, adding 200 in-store Ulta centers on its way to 800.

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And the biggest lender of all is Amazon.com, which had over $60 billion in capital expenditures in 2021. While Amazon’s reported capital expenditure numbers include its cloud computing division, the company spent nearly $31 billion on property, plant and equipment in the first half — following an already record-breaking 2021 — though the investment made the company’s free cash flow negative.

That’s enough to make even Amazon hit the brakes a little, as CFO Brian Olsavsky tells investors that Amazon is shifting more of its investment money into cloud computing. This year, it is estimated that around 40% of spending will support warehouses and transport capacity, compared to last year’s combined 55%. It also plans to spend less on global deals — “to better align with customer demand,” Olsavksy told analysts after its recent gains — already a much smaller budget item percentage.

At Gap — whose shares are down nearly 50% this year — executives have defended their capex cuts, saying they need to defend earnings this year and hope for a rebound in 2023.

“We also believe there is an opportunity to more meaningfully slow the pace of our investments in technology and digital platforms to better optimize our operating profits,” Chief Financial Officer Katrina O’Connell told analysts following the latest results.

And Lowe’s deflected an analyst’s question about spending cuts, saying it could continue to take market share from smaller competitors. Lowe’s has been the better stock market compared to Home Depot over the most recent one-year and year-end periods, though both posted sizeable declines in 2022.

“Home improvement is a $900 billion marketplace,” said Lowe CEO Marvin Ellison, without mentioning Home Depot. “And I think it’s easy to just focus on the two biggest players and determine the overall market share gain just based on that, but this is a really fragmented market.”

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