From Inflation to Deflation: A Seasonal Shift in Consumer Prices

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Consumers tapped out from inflation may finally get a reprieve this holiday season in the form of falling prices. According to Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, deflation could be on the horizon.

On a Thursday earnings call, McMillon said the retail giant expects to see deflationary trends emerge in the coming weeks and months. He pointed to general merchandise and key grocery items like eggs, chicken, and seafood that have already seen notable price decreases.

McMillon added that even stubbornly high prices for pantry staples are expected to start dropping soon. “In the U.S., we may be managing through a period of deflation in the months to come,” he said, welcoming the change as a benefit to financially strapped customers.

His comments echo optimism from other major retailers that inflation may have peaked. Earlier this week, Home Depot CFO Richard McPhail remarked that “the worst of the inflationary environment is behind us.”

Government data also hints the pricing pressures are easing. The consumer price index (CPI) for October was flat compared to September on a seasonally adjusted basis. Core CPI, which excludes volatile food and energy costs, dipped to a two-year low.

This emerging deflationary environment is a reprieve after over a year of runaway inflation that drove the cost of living to 40-year highs. Everything from groceries to household utilities saw dramatic price hikes that squeezed family budgets.

But the October CPI readings suggest the Federal Reserve’s aggressive interest rate hikes are having the desired effect of reining in excessive inflation. As supply chains normalize and consumer demand cools, prices are softening across many categories.

For instance, the American Farm Bureau Federation calculates that the average cost of a classic Thanksgiving dinner for 10 will be $64.05 this year – down 4.5% from 2022’s record high of $67.01. The drop is attributed largely to a decrease in turkey prices.

Still, consumers aren’t out of the woods yet when it comes to stubborn inflation on essentials. While prices are down from their peak, they remain elevated compared to historical norms.

Grocery prices at Walmart are up mid-single digits versus 2022, though up high-teens compared to 2019. Many other household basics like rent, medical care, and vehicle insurance continue to rise at above average rates.

And American shopping habits reflect the impact of lingering inflation. Walmart CFO John David Rainey noted consumers have waited for discounts before purchasing goods such as Black Friday deals.

McMillon indicated shoppers are still monitoring spending carefully. So while deflationary pressure is a tailwind, Walmart doesn’t expect an abrupt return to pre-pandemic spending patterns.

The retailer hopes to see food prices in particular come down faster, as grocery inflation eats up a significant chunk of household budgets. But experts warn it could take the rest of 2023 before inflation fully normalizes.

Consumers have been resilient yet cautious under economic uncertainty. If deflation takes root across the retail landscape, it could provide much-needed relief to wallets and mark a turning point toward recovery. For now, the environment looks favorable for a little more jingle in shoppers’ pockets this holiday season.


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