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Retailers say shoppers are making fewer purchases but inflation means they pay more

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Shoppers are making fewer purchases and fewer trips to stores, but when they do check out at the register, they're spending more because things cost more. Inflation is at its highest in decades. Now, these are some of the takeaways from a spate of midyear report cards by America's leading retailers. Here's NPR's Alina Selyukh.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Updates from retailers are chaotic, showing lots of diverging trends, summed up in a zinger by Dollar Tree Executive Chairman Rick Dreiling.

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RICK DREILING: Consumer shopping patterns continue to zig and zag.

SELYUKH: Almost across the board, shoppers are zigging and zagging to stores less frequently. Often, they're consolidating trips because driving is pricey, or they're simply buying fewer things. Some companies, like Home Depot and Williams-Sonoma, say their sales are still growing, in part because prices are higher, but even more retailers have announced they are scaling back their financial hopes for the year - Macy's, Nordstrom, Best Buy, Victoria's Secret. Here's Nordstrom CEO Erik Nordstrom.

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ERIK NORDSTROM: The uncertainty moving forward is significant, and there's cases to be made that things could get better pretty quickly, and then there's credible cases to be made that it's going to be tough.

SELYUKH: Uncertainty right now is all about inflation. Higher prices for gas and food are changing shopping habits, particularly for people with lower incomes. Shoppers are spending more at grocery stores, as people prioritize food on the table, and sales are growing at dollar stores, as people seek bargains on essentials, including wealthier shoppers, says Dollar General CEO Todd Vasos.

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TODD VASOS: We also saw growth in the number of higher-income households shopping with us, which we believe reflects more consumers choosing Dollar General as they seek value.

SELYUKH: In fact, a top Walmart executive also told CNBC that families earning more than $100,000 a year were a huge boost to Walmart sales in recent months. That's one reason why the retail giant has now improved its previously gloomy forecast for the year, signaling better times ahead. Another reason is a recent drop in gas prices, providing a bit of relief to shoppers. Gap, too, called that out in its report, adding that people are still shopping for office clothes, particularly at its pricier Banana Republic stores.

SUCHARITA KODALI: Every metric I see is that the economy is pretty resilient.

SELYUKH: Sucharita Kodali is an analyst at Forrester, and she points out, overall, wages are higher, unemployment is low, savings rates are decent.

KODALI: Retail spend, even in spite of inflation, is at a record high.

SELYUKH: Some economists warn this may not last, saying this fall, when bills come due after all the summer vacations and back-to-school shopping, more families might tighten their belts. How fast? How much? Still - that word we love - it's an uncertainty.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.