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Impact of Last-Minute Shoppers Uncertain

ShopperTrak reduces seasonal estimate while stores wait for consumers’ return.

T’was the season of procrastination.

That might very well be the takeaway for many when they recall holiday 2012, a period in which even relatively modest expectations for retail sales might not be realized. With just five days to go before Christmas, the holiday forecasts of a few months ago are beginning to appear a bit more hopeful than realistic, even allowing for the usual optimism that works its way into retailers’ consciences when the subject turns to the fourth quarter.

ShopperTrak Inc., the Chicago-based retail traffic counter, considered a variety of factors Wednesday when it reduced its projection for holiday retail sales growth to 2.5 percent from its initial projection, issued in September, of 3.3 percent.

With more stores open for more hours on Thanksgiving in advance of Black Friday, and with the 32 shopping days between Black Friday and Christmas the maximum possible, consumers hit the stores early and then pulled back, a shopping hiatus that will be tough to make up in the remaining days before the holiday.

“Those extra Thanksgiving hours may have taken some money off the table,” said Chris Angell, ShopperTrak’s director of global marketing. “People figured they got an early start and had a lot of time to finish. The more people delay buying the sweater, the more pressure the merchant has to get them to not delay, typically leading to discounts. And with Christmas on a Tuesday, people are reasoning they have ‘three whole days’ to shop.”

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The ShopperTrak revision didn’t extend to its expectations for foot traffic, still expected to move up 2.8 percent from a year ago, implying consumers, assisted by their own thrift and the promotional orientation of the retailers wooing them, will spend less per store visit. The ShopperTrak executive noted that the increase in foot traffic, if realized, would be the first in four years, dating back to the recession.

During the week ended Dec. 15, foot traffic was up 15.1 percent from the prior week, while retail sales rose 16.4 percent, but the increases represented respective declines of 4.4 percent and 4.3 percent from the comparable periods in 2011, ShopperTrak said. It continues to expect a healthy rush in the season’s final days, with the week ended Dec. 22 the busiest of the year and Dec. 22 itself “one of the five busiest days of the season,” according to Bill Martin, ShopperTrak’s founder.

The National Retail Federation continues to expect 4.1 percent growth in holiday sales, with e-commerce expanding about 12 percent. IHS Insight projected 3.9 percent growth.

Of the many groups that project holiday results, none was more upbeat, or closer to the mark, about 2011 than Customer Growth Partners Inc. Craig Johnson, president, expected sales to grow 6.5 percent, in excess of the actual growth rate of 5.8 percent. The International Council of Shopping Centers projected growth of 3 percent, while Alix Partners, figuring on a 4.5 percent spurt, provided the highest estimate of any group other than CGP.

Citing the challenge of beating last year’s strong numbers as well as lingering worries about the economy, Johnson was decidedly more cautious this year. On Oct. 26, he projected 2.8 percent growth in holiday spending, which would bring sales for the season to about $557 billion.

With previous concerns recently exacerbated by factors ranging from Hurricane Sandy and the Newtown killings to fears about the fiscal cliff, he sees no reason to move from that conservative estimate. “We happen to think that this weekend coming up will be pretty good but not great,” he told WWD. “It’s too close to the holiday, and there aren’t significant e-commerce sales to be had. The real wild card is the week between Christmas and New Year’s. With slower sales than most people anticipated, there could be a lot of good deals available.”