The presumed easy comparisons from the 2015 holiday shopping season might not mean much anymore, given what appears to be an earlier start to the round of discounting at retail dubbed the “holiday creep.”
And there’s a chance even deeper discounts could be coming down the pike. What that could mean is a hit on margins — particularly if discounts get even steeper as the season progresses — and potentially lackluster fourth-quarter earnings reports for some retailers.
Instinet analyst Simeon A. Siegel said brands and retailers are committed to “entering holiday with clean inventories” to best position themselves for what is likely to remain a “promotional holiday anyway.”
Those promotions have been ongoing since late October, although many have been dubbed Friends and Family events, or special flash sales for a few hours for certain categories. Talbots has had discounts of 20 percent off, and even 30 percent off. Lands’ End just finished a 40 percent sale and L.L. Bean just completed a weeklong special of 20 percent off for everything on the site that’s made by Bean.
On Wednesday, Bon-Ton Stores unveiled an online special of “30 Door Buster Deals” every day through Black Friday. Wednesday’s “30 Hot Picks” included a “huge selection of Calvin Klein Performance active separates” for women at $24.97; 30 percent off dresses from Adrianna Papell, Ronni Nicole and others, and 50 percent off the entire stock of kids’ Adidas activewear, among other deals. Pendleton sent e-mails noting new markdowns at up to 50 percent off of wear-now styles.
Macy’s at 3 p.m. Wednesday afternoon had on its site — for at least another 11 hours — what it calls the “Ultimate Pop-up Sale,” with women’s apparel 25 to 50 percent off; a Smashbox step-by-step contour kit on sale at $27 from $45; select styles in men’s designer collections between 25 and 60 percent off; 40 percent off select styles in women’s shoes and boots, as well as in women’s winter accessories, and between 55 and 75 percent off of select styles in fine jewelry marked clearance, among other promotions.
Not to be left out, Lord & Taylor on Wednesday was advertising for online and in-stores a pre-Thanksgiving Super Sale featuring three-day specials through Friday. The sale was 20 percent off regular-priced and sale items, with special deals for the three days, which had some items up to 40 percent off.
And if the promotions are deep now, the discounts could get deeper over the Thanksgiving weekend. According to Wallet Hub, Macy’s Inc. has the highest overall discount rate for 2016 Black Friday ads, followed by Stage Stores and J.C. Penney Co. Inc. The personal-finance web site surveyed 8,000 deals from 35 of the biggest U.S. retailers’ 2016 Black Friday ads. The overall discount rate at Macy’s was 63.4 percent, followed by Stage Stores at 62.8 percent and J.C. Penney at 62.8 percent. Others advertising steep discounts were: Kohl’s, 58.2 percent, Shopko, 55.6 percent and Sears, 43.9 percent.
In the Wallet Hub study, the overall average discount rate for Black Friday among the 35 retailers surveyed is 39 percent. The “toys” category had the biggest share of discounted items at 28.3 percent of all offers, while “books, movies and music” had the smallest share of discounted items at 0.9 percent.
After toys, apparel and accessories were second highest among share of discounted items at 18.1 percent. Computers and phones were next at 10.3 percent. Jewelry was also in the top 10 categories, but at 4.4 percent was lower on the list, behind consumer electronics at 9.2 percent and appliances at 6.5 percent.
Within the apparel and accessories category, Gordmans offered the most robust Black Friday discount at 67.4 percent. Rounding out the top five were: Stage (across all nameplates), 64.5 percent; J.C. Penney, 60.7 percent; Shopko, 59.4 percent and Macy’s Inc., 59 percent. Discounts at retailers who didn’t make the top five include: BJ’s Wholesale Club, 42.2 percent; Fred Meyer, 58.7 percent; Kmart, 40.1 percent; Kohl’s Corp., 53 percent; Meijer Inc., 57.5 percent; Modell’s, 27.7 percent; Sam’s Club, 20.8 percent; Sears Holdings, 52.5 percent and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., 35.9 percent.
David J. Silverman, senior director in corporate finance, retail, at Fitch Ratings, a competing ratings agency, said Wednesday, “Retail headwinds will continue into the 2016 holidays, limiting sales growth amid sharp pricing competition despite a generally benign macro backdrop.”
Silverman said brick-and-mortar nameplates have struggled to maintain market share as the consumer has shifted to e-commerce, and that “half of the projected 3 percent spending increase expected during the holidays is forecast to come online.” He also noted that “Fitch expects an increase in gift-giving of intangible items, such as media subscriptions and experiences that aren’t available for purchase at most retail stores.” Further, Silverman noted that the retail challenges ahead will be exacerbated by reduced time spent in malls, which impacts impulse purchases, whether for gifts or for self-purchase. Compounding the holiday sales season is the paucity of must-have items driving significant growth in key categories such as fashion or toys.
“As a result of limited growth, the pressure will be on retailers to offer attractive promotions and customer service such as discounted expedited shipping and returns to create marketing excitement in a noisy marketplace and maintain market share,” Silverman said. He concluded that these “efforts will leave few retailers with positive earnings momentum in the fourth quarter, despite a weak 2015 holiday earnings season.”
Ratings agency Standard & Poor, through its S&P Global Ratings team, on Friday provided its economic forecast of 2.9 percent fourth-quarter gross domestic product growth and 2.7 percent growth in real consumer spending. That translates into a holiday season that should be good for U.S. retailers this year, but not great. The global ratings team said it expects “margin pressure to be more pronounced in certain segments during the holiday season; specialty apparel, for example, has remained highly promotional.” The team noted that fourth-quarter same-store sales from 2006 to 2015 ranged from negative to 3.5 percent, and said, “We think discounters will continue to fare better than specialty apparel, with department stores somewhere in between.”
At a post-election economic outlook presentation on Wednesday hosted by The Conference Board, the expectation was there wouldn’t be much change short-term until after the new administration under President-elect Donald Trump has had a chance to review existing policies. Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators and surveys, spoke briefly about holiday, noting a recent survey shows “consumers are spending more or less the same as last year.” But the news was mixed. Franco said while fewer respondents said they plan to cut back on spending this year, it was also clear “consumers are not willing to pay full price.” Also, consumers seem willing to wait until the last minute, making the weekend before Christmas a bigger shopping period that surpasses Black Friday, Franco said.