By and  on December 15, 2010

As stores promote their way through a reasonably good holiday season so far, there’s mounting concern about what happens after the Christmas trees come down.

Retailers and analysts, while sticking to or, in some cases, even elevating their forecasts for holiday sales, continue to have strong concerns about consumers and their willingness to spend in 2011.

“I would say the holiday is one thing. Post-holiday and next spring I would not necessarily predict the same business climate,” said Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer for Brooks Brothers. “I am not sitting here saying I will now reevaluate our forecast for spring. We are still planning spring quite conservatively.”

“As you think about 2011, consumers are cautious and watching carefully to ensure that their finances are secure. Quality, price, how an item fits into their wardrobes — they’re putting more thought into each purchase,” observed Dana Telsey, chief executive officer of Telsey Advisory Group. As for Christmas shopping at the moment: “Consumers have a fixed amount of money [they] are willing to spend, but they’re looking to get the most innovative, newest buys out there.”

According to David L. Bassuk, managing director and head of global retail practice at AlixPartners LLP, Americans are opting for “fewer, but higher-priced, higher-quality items purchased at sharply reduced prices.”

“After some positive reads, our clients are seeing things taper off a bit,” he continued. “We will see the same trend as the last holiday and back-to-school seasons — an initial pop, then things [through the Christmas season] really slow down till the last minute.”

In the days leading up to Christmas, Bassuk expects to see promotions “like we’ve never seen before.” And the key reason: “There are pockets of categories burdened by high inventory,” he said.

Already, stores have been running aggressive sales. The buy one, get one at 50 or 60 percent off promotions, known as “bogos,” are widespread. It’s often difficult to tell for sure whether the discounts were planned well in advance, working closely with vendors, or were reflex reactions to stimulate buying, though retailers have said so far it’s the former.

“Retailers came into season with a better understanding of the promotional cadence they need and the pricing structure they need to be able to afford the promotions,” said Richard Jaffe, managing director at Stifel Nicolaus. “Everything seems to be on sale and that is the desired effect. How much [merchandise] was bought in March to be sold on sale in December is the question. More was planned to be promotionally sold this year than ever before. The economy didn’t start getting better” until after many stores made their buys.

Industry sources said consumers remain extremely selective in their shopping because they’re insecure about their jobs and the economy, worried about rising fuel and food prices and concerned their stock portfolios are fragile amid the improved yet volatile financial markets.

As a result, many observers don’t expect the holiday momentum to continue into 2011. “You’re going to see discounts of 75 percent in January,” predicted Marshal Cohen, NPD Group’s chief industry analyst. “[Profit] margins are going to look a little less rosy than the sale volumes” in February when fourth-quarter results are announced. “Retailers have been discounting their way to get consumers to come into their stores,” said Cohen. “It will be an OK holiday, but not a great holiday. A select group of retailers had to get overly aggressive to get their inventories back in line. Fashion, overall, is not going to do well. Apparel has lost 18 percent of its gift-giving strength in the last decade. Electronics, is now only 5 points behind apparel. [Apparel] used to account for half of all gifts given. It’s now not even 40 percent.”

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