Consumers may be benefiting from an improving economy, but that’s not showing up in this year’s holiday sales trends.
In a research note Tuesday based on the conclusions of nine analysts from Citi Research, the report concluded: “U.S. consumers are feeling marginally more downbeat about the economy this year than last year, and they are feeling financially slightly worse off.”
In a survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers on Nov. 23 and 24 about their spending intentions for holiday, the note said, “Only 38 percent of consumers believe the economy is healthy and recovering, versus 46 percent a year ago.”
That means that for every U.S. consumer planning to spend more this year than in 2014, there are 1.8 customers planning to spend less, versus only 1.4 last year.
According to the research note, “These findings suggest lower gas prices and a declining unemployment rate have done little to help the U.S. consumer.”
Indeed, the November Consumer Confidence Index survey, in which the cutoff date for preliminary results was Nov. 12, declined in October and then declined further in November. The Index, now at 90.4, reflected consumer concerns on the labor front. Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board, said, “The decline was mainly due to a less favorable view of the job market.…Fewer consumers said the conditions had improved, while the proportion saying conditions had deteriorated also declined. Heading into 2016, consumers are cautious about the labor market and expect little change in business conditions.”
On the apparel front, Citi is predicting that U.S. consumers are planning to spend a higher percentage of their gift budget on athletic apparel, 4 percent this year compared with 3 percent last year. One dynamic favoring the category versus regular apparel has to do with “product newness and innovation,” while little newness in regular apparel has led consumers to search for bargains.
Cowen & Co.’s Oliver Chen noted three firms that did well during the Black Friday weekend and could continue to see momentum build: Ulta Beauty, American Eagle Outfitters and L Brands. Innovative strategies, in-salon services and the ability to gain new customers while also driving productivity with existing ones is enabling Ulta continue to gain share of wallet. Pullback of promotions and an innovative denim assortment has helped American Eagle drive sales, while leadership and lack of competition in intimates at Victoria’s Secret and in personal care at Bath and Body Works provides market-share dominance for L Brands.
Dana Telsey of Telsey Advisory Group said apparel and footwear have been the better-performing categories at the moderate department stores, such as J.C. Penney and Kohl’s. She noted deterioration at their upper-tier counterparts as consumers seem to be shifting their preference toward the value channels. In the specialty channel, Telsey said teen retail is showing some life, citing American Eagle and Hollister, and noted that the cosmetics and beauty share of wallet continues to accelerate. The analyst also concluded that the denim cycle remains supportive but added that it’s the lack of newness in fashion overall that represents a continuing challenge for the specialty retailers.
Even as consumer sentiment appears to be downbeat, there are indications that next year could be different. Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Research on Tuesday hosted a 2016 Market Outlook in Manhattan in which the consensus was that “Main Street is expected to outperform Wall Street as the tailwind of low rates, oil prices and rising employment continues to benefit consumers.”
Ethan Harris, co-head of global economics research, noted that while the emerging markets were driving growth at the beginning of the recovery, now it’s the developed markets that are driving that growth.
Global GDP is forecast to grow by 3.4 percent, up from 3.1 percent in 2015, and in the U.S., GDP growth is expected to remain steady at 2.5 percent next year as solid labor markets offset weak productivity growth. And the U.S. housing market, which comprises a significant component of household wealth for many consumers, is expected to see further expansion in 2016. BofA Merrill Lynch analysts said that existing home sales could increase by 5 percent in 2016, while new home sales see a more robust 10 percent growth rate. And even though the Federal Reserve is expected to finally begin to raise interest rates later this month, the Fed’s go-slow approach is expected to prevent a painful rise in mortgage rates.