On Black Friday, I avoided placing my life into the hands of mall rent-a-cops and instead sat at my computer, ordered all my holiday gifts with the click of my mouse, wondered why everyone else didn’t do the same. Oh, and I watched the sales results come in.
Apparently, I was one of the few because, boy were there a lot of shoppers in the malls — from Build-A-Bear (NYSE:BBW) to Macy’s (NYSE:M). But while the results seemed strong at first, you should take them with an ounce of skepticism.
The total amount spent was $59.1 billion, up about 13% year-over-year — the story most of the financial media will go with, and a good number on the surface. But there’s more to the story.
I bet you think I’m concerned about the 1.8% decline in revenues at actual brick-and-mortar stores — the first such decrease since 2008. But really, a small portion of that was due to a shift to online purchases, which rose from about $830 million to $1 billion. The rest was just because shoppers moved their purchases from Friday to Thursday as many retailers opened their doors earlier.
No, I have other concerns — two of them, to be exact. To start, the average amount that was spent on gifts increased from $423 from $398, but that number is not inflation adjusted. And as I’ve written, the economy is seeing stealth inflation.
The official inflation rate, or CPI, is about 3.3%. However, the American Institute for Economic Research’s Everyday Price Index is at 8%. When you back out elements from that index such as housing and automobiles, you are probably closer to the 5% or 6% range.
If you calculated inflation as the CPI did in 1980 — before the multiple changes to that calculation the government instituted — you’d get 5% inflation. Tack on 5% inflation to $398 and you get about $418, suggesting that gifts purchases were only up 1% … at best.
On top of that, the National Retail Federation reported that nearly 80% of shoppers took advantage of the weekend’s promotion to buy non-gift items. 58% bought clothing and accessories, up from 51% last year. In other words, gifts were not the reason for the 13% YOY increase in sales (an increase that lagged behind the 16% growth we saw last year, by the way).
Both points suggest what is know as “weak transaction value.” Shoppers gobbled up the promotion and sale items in order to buy necessities. So despite the nice headline numbers, people remain cautious with their spending.
For those trumpeting the big increase this year, there’s obviously more han meets the eye. Maybe that’s why we saw a 4% decline in Nordstrom (NYSE:JWN) and Macy’s stock yesterday, a 3% decline in Target (NYSE:TGT) and even a slight downtick in Walmart (NYSE:WMT).
Be sure to keep an eye on luxury retailers like Tiffany (NYSE:TIF) and Michael Kors (NYSE:KORS) for either outright year-over-year declines in sales or a slowing of growth as well. If that happens, it’s all the more reason to believe we’re headed for recession — and that holiday sales haven’t been as nice as they seem.
Lawrence Meyers does not own shares of any company mentioned.