Just what the industry needed — another controversy in an already unusual and challenging season.

This story first appeared in the December 2, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

On Monday, the National Retail Federation stood by its estimate the day before that total sales for the Thanksgiving stretch plummeted 11 percent, a dire forecast that sparked industry reaction.

The NRF was busy fielding calls Monday from some top retail executives disputing the findings, which came from a consumer survey. Among those disagreeing was Stephen Sadove, the former Saks Fifth Avenue chairman and chief executive officer, who just happens to be the chairman of the NRF.

“I don’t believe consumption was minus 11 percent,” Sadove told WWD. “It’s not consistent with what I have been hearing talking to a number of people in the industry.

“The survey is a survey. It’s not like anybody is making up the numbers,” Sadove added. “But it’s polling data, not actual purchasing data.”

Sources said Macy’s chairman and ceo Terry Lundgren was also disputing the findings, but Macy’s would not confirm.

“From our own data set, we didn’t see any evidence of a wholesale decline whatsoever,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners. “One or two teen apparel retailers may have been down a lot but all the big guys — Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, Best Buy, Macy’s — were modestly up. Nobody was near down 11 percent, and at worst, it could have been kind of flatish. You have to question the methodological accuracy of a self-reporting consumer survey. Consumers are notoriously poor estimators of what they are going to spend.”

“I believe that sales were stronger” than what the NRF estimated, said retail analyst Walter Loeb. “Business Thursday night was pretty good. Friday was OK. On Saturday, traffic was poor and Sunday was not much to write about. It wasn’t a great period but it was better than what they are saying.”

“I don’t see it,” said one department store ceo, who requested anonymity.

According to NRF’s Thanksgiving Weekend Spending Survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, spending in the U.S. over the holiday weekend, online and in stores, dropped 11 percent to $50.9 billion, from last year’s estimated $57.4 billion. NRF also said 55.1 percent of holiday shoppers were or would be in stores and online over Thanksgiving weekend, down from 58.7 percent last year. From Thanksgiving Day through Sunday, there were 133.7 million unique holiday shoppers, versus 141.1 million in 2013. It was the 11th survey NRF has released in partnership with Prosper.

On Monday, the NRF stood by its provocative findings. “This isn’t the first time we had to put out negative data. We are not cheerleaders. We exist to paint a picture of the retail industry, even if it’s negative,” said Kathy Grannis, NRF’s senior director of media relations. Grannis also said that the NRF was sticking to its forecast for a 4.1 percent total sales gain for the holiday season.

Dissecting the survey findings, Grannis said they indicate consumers would spend $28 less over the Thanksgiving period. “That’s basically a sweater…the survey is a snapshot of a population at a moment in time in the middle of the weekend. One Thanksgiving does not equal a holiday season.”

“A strengthening economy that changes consumers’ reliance on deep discounts, a highly competitive environment, early promotions and the ability to shop 24/7 online all contributed to the shift witnessed this weekend,” NRF president and ceo Matthew Shay said Sunday when the numbers were released.

Other research also showed brick-and-mortar declines. RetailNext’s preliminary numbers showed net sales on Thanksgiving and Black Friday were down 11 percent. ShopperTrak estimated that sales for the two days would be down 0.5 percent.

This week retailers will less feverishly promote in anticipation of a lull in business and some post-Thanksgiving shopper fatigue. They’ve already bombarded consumers with markdowns ranging from 40 to 60 percent off, but are retrenching 10 to 20 points on average as they review sales data and inventory positions. “Promotions will be pulled back a bit from what we saw last week, the 50 and 40 percent offs will probably be 25 and 30, and closer to Christmas, they pull up the big guns again,” said Carla White, senior equity analyst, Jennifer Black & Associates.

This week retailers “gird” for the proverbial last-minute Christmas rush for gifts later in the month, said Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at Kurt Salmon. He predicted “a low-single-digit holiday season” with retailers experiencing “a little more pain on the margin side than anticipated…All of the strengths are in lower-margin categories —electronics, big-ticket TVs, small appliances and housewares. Areas producing the biggest revenues have not been high-margin categories.”

Janney Capital Markets in its November preview predicted sharp Black Friday declines at some specialty retailers, including Aéropostale down 12 percent; Abercrombie & Fitch, 10 percent; Francesca’s Holdings, 6 percent; American Eagle Outfitters, 5 percent; Gap and Express, both down 3 percent. But Michael Kors is seen up 12 percent, and Lululemon, PacSun and Zumiez, up 2 percent.

“Those companies better positioned to play in an omnichannel environment were the ones that did well. Those companies relying on just traffic in the malls probably had a difficult time,” Sadove said, about Black Friday. “When the dust settles, we will probably be in the range” of the NRF 4.1 percent forecast.

Sadove remains NRF chairman until January. Kip Tindell of The Container Store has been named his successor.

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