Weak Holiday Sales Don’t Necessarily Mean Weak Consumers

by Alyssa Oursler | September 18, 2013 6:00 am

September may have just started, but speculation about the upcoming holiday season is already underway. Many are concerned that the winter months will be rough for retailers since big names from Walmart (WMT[1]) to Macy’s (M[2]) posted unimpressive second-quarter earnings and lowered their outlooks, while recent retail data was soft.

The crucial shopping period surrounding Christmas is important for retailers, as it accounts for around 40% of annual sales. But it’s also seen as a key gauge of consumer spending as a whole, which accounts for close to 70% of U.S. economic activity.

Still, the line between holiday spending and consumer health may not be as straight as it seems. Even if sales during the most wonderful time of the year are weak, it doesn’t necessarily mean consumers are.

Some Positive Data

Michael Niemira, the chief economist of the International Council of Shopping Centers, isn’t particularly worried about second-quarter numbers or recent retail data. “Those metrics are backwards looking,” he explained. “Instead, I would look to the economic fundamentals, which have been more positive.”

For example, gross domestic product grew 2.5% in the second quarter thanks to consumer strength — much faster than the government has originally estimated. On top of that, the four-week average for jobless claims is sitting around a six-year low.

A recent Gallup poll also showed that nearly 60% of consumers think they’re earning more money than they were five years ago, while August’s retail sales represented the fifth consecutive monthly improvement in the metric.

As a result, Niemira expects a moderate gain in the range of 3% to 3.5% for holidays sales of general merchandise, apparel, furniture and electronics and other similar type stores — “not a gangbuster season, by any means, but not a dismal one either,” he said.

A Host of Factors

Adrienne Tennant — a retail analyst for Janney Montgomery Scott, the largest Philadelphia-based full-service financial services firm and a subsidiary of the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company, which manages $50 billion in assets — is much more conservative in her outlook. While holiday sales usually improve year-over-year, Tennant maintains that a flat season this year would actually be pretty good.

But even when Tennant expressed her concerns, most of them were not centered on consumer weakness.

Take clothing retail, for example. Tennant said cheap cotton prices last year boosted margins, but this year won’t feature the same benefit to retailers. Plus, we are coming off a huge incremental fashion trend.

There are also accounting quirks to consider. In 2012, retailers had the benefit of the 53rd week — something that only happens every five to six years. This year, the accounting period is back to normal.

Throw in the trend of deep holiday discounts as retailers compete fiercely for every dollar, and more shoppers may not necessarily result in more dollars being spent. As Tennant put it, after Black Friday “the sales dry up and then people just wait two more weeks, because they know deep promotions will come back again.”

Niemira at ICSC agreed that these factors are making the holiday sales outlook more murky than usual.

“You have to assess the economics right for your own client base, have the right product mix, and the right amount of promotion that can drive traffic and doesn’t hurt profits,” Niemira said. “It’s always tricky, because there are so many points of uncertainty.”

“Consumers spend in fits and starts, and that’s a bigger problem,” he added. “While the broader economic environment will help, consumers won’t change how they spend, because it’s just the way the consumer has been trained. Retailers accentuate days at the expense of the season.”

The Bottom Line

All in all, holiday sales may not be moved by any factor as simple as consumer confidence or a lower jobless rate. Retailers have a lot of variables to nail if they want to not just drive traffic, but turn it into profits — and holiday shoppers are increasingly savvy about seeking out deep promotions on top of that.

If you’re an investor in retail stocks, that means looking beyond holiday spending or economic data broadly and focusing on the specifics of an individual investment.

There is uncertainty — as always — but there is also evidence that consumers and the economy are at least slowly getting stronger, even if holiday sales don’t follow suit.

A smart investor will identify those opportunities this holiday season.

As of this writing, Alyssa Oursler did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. Follow her on Twitter: @alyssaoursler[3].

  1. WMT: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=WMT
  2. M: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=M
  3. @alyssaoursler: http://twitter.com/alyssaoursler

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