Us retailers have been left scrambling for goods in time for the crucial winter holiday shopping season as unexpected resilience in consumer spending creates shortages for some lines of clothing, electronics and other popular items.

Newly compiled industry data show retailers slashed orders for merchandise at the height of the lockdown in the spring, only to be wrongfooted by unforeseen customer demand.

Were scrambling for product at this point. we dont have enough, because we planned very conservatively once this all happened, said rebecca minkoff, co-founder of the eponymous fashion brand known for $195 crossbody handbags and $295 leather backpacks. our wholesale partners are calling again. theyre like, can we get some stuff?

By the end of july, according to an analysis for the financial times by data provider sentieo, 33 of the countrys largest listed retailers held $119bn worth of inventory, a decline of 9 per cent from the same time a year earlier.

Stock levels have dropped after orders collapsed at the peak of the pandemic weeks earlier. retail executives typically place orders for the important holiday season which includes thanksgiving and christmas in the spring, but this year they feared sales would decline sharply for the rest of 2020. even those who wanted merchandise faced logistical difficulties in securing supply as factories closed.

Line chart of total inventory ($bn) showing retailers

But consumer spending has recovered from an initial slump. the 33 companies tracked by sentieo produced combined second-quarter sales of $292bn, almost 6 per cent more than the same period in 2019.

Theres a major inventory problem. it hasnt got a huge amount of publicity yet, maybe because people [in the industry] dont want to panic everybody, said craig johnson, president of the customer growth partners consultancy. everybodys saying, were going to get short for holiday unless we hustle up.

Brian goldner, chief executive of hasbro, the toy company behind play-doh and my little pony, told a virtual investment conference last week: our retail inventories were, frankly, too low. weve been catching up.

Retailers cautious approach to inventory could yet prove to be prudent for the sector, however, especially as the withdrawal of government stimulus funds poses a threat to the recovery.

Privately, several executives have said they would rather be left with too little stock and forgo sales volumes than be stuck with too much.

Retailers try to match inventory levels to demand, but the deep uncertainty about consumer spending trends in the pandemic has made the task especially difficult this year.

They placed orders when everything was looking like it was going to go in the toilet. nobody expected sales to be up year over year in june, july, august, added mr johnson.

There were shortages in areas including fitness equipment, electric appliances, footwear and some other types of clothing, he said.

Theres simply not enough product, said simeon siegel, retail analyst at bmo capital markets. surprisingly or not, demand is outstripping supply.

While bricks and mortar department stores and clothing chains have been hard hit in recent months, spending in other categories has been robust. economic data released last week showed ecommerce sales jumped 22 per cent year on year in august, and overall spending on goods including diy, furniture and sporting goods was also higher.

The tight inventory levels should strengthen retailers pricing powers and stop them rushing to discount in the run-up to christmas, mr siegel said. it likely means retailers will not have to promote as much as consumers might have been expecting.