To date, holiday 2019 shopping has been somewhere between ‘ho-ho-ho’ and ‘ho-hum.’
Nevertheless, with only seven days left until Christmas, activity in stores and online is steadily picking up and analysts aren’t backing away from their optimistic forecasts for the season, generally in the 4-percent sales gain range.
“It wasn’t a blockbuster last weekend, but it was good steady trade and decent traffic. Everything is staying on track,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, which dispatches 18 staffers to traditional malls as well as power, lifestyle and outlet centers, 80 to 100 in total on any given week.
Compared to a year ago, “The footfall was softer on average but transaction velocity was higher, implying conversion rates have ticked up by a point or two,” Johnson said.
After a strong Black Friday-Cyber Monday run, there was an expected lull in traffic at stores and malls in early December. But many consumers are far from completing their gift lists and the biggest volume day of the year for retailers is yet to come — Super Saturday. That’s the last Saturday before Christmas and always the height of the holiday rush.
“We are into the holiday homestretch, but U.S. consumers still have a lot of shopping to do and this points to continued strong spend through the rest of the holiday shopping season,” Deborah Weinswig, founder and chief executive officer of Coresight Research, wrote in a report dated Sunday.
Despite the financial health of the nation — low unemployment, higher wages and a robust stock market — retailers worry over there being six fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year.
But Weinswig put that in perspective, observing: “A late Thanksgiving means U.S. shoppers have on average completed much less of their shopping by early December than they had this time last year.” Still, she added, “Shoppers do not buy fewer gifts or spend less per gift because of a calendar shift, so the only real loss is in incremental impulse purchases that would be made over a longer shopping season.”
Similarly, a report on Monday by Kimberly C. Greenberger, equity analyst from Morgan Stanley, indicated, “Despite seemingly solid Black Friday traffic, November full-month and week-four traffic trends confirmed our suspicions of a slower holiday season start. However, December week-one traffic and December week-two store checks suggest a sequential traffic build as we approach the peak holiday period.”
Greenberger cited earlier promotions by retailers to offset the shorter calendar this year. “About 10 percent year-over-year promotional breadth could indicate retailers are utilizing earlier promotions to drive store traffic and offset the below-average holiday shopping calendar. However, lower year-over-year clearance breadth (approximately 25 percent lower on average) may suggest retailers are strategically attempting to neutralize the gross margin impact of higher promotional activity.”
She cited lower clearance levels this year at Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, American Eagle, Chico’s, White House Black Market, Nordstrom, Michael Kors and Urban Outfitters. Clearances at Kate Spade, Gap, Old Navy, Victoria’s Secret, Pink, Bath & Body Works, Lululemon, Kohl’s and Macy’s were about the same.
Last Friday, Mickey Chadha, vice president at debt watchdog Moody’s Investors Service, said: “We continue to expect that strong consumer confidence, wage growth, low unemployment and the strong macroeconomic environment in the U.S. will result in 2019 retail sales growth of over 3.5 percent, led by e-commerce players like Amazon; off-price retailers like TJX and Ross; value and convenience-oriented retailers like Dollar General and Dollar Tree, and discounters and warehouse clubs like Walmart and Target.”
And the National Retail Federation’s chief economist Jack Kleinhenz characterized the November retail results as “more about the calendar than consumer confidence. Consumer spending has been solid, and there’s still a lot of spending to be done. With strong employment and higher wages, we’re on track for a strong holiday season.”
On the dismal side, department stores and apparel and accessories specialty stores continued to show weakness overall during November.
Year-over-year department store sales dropped 7.2 percent while specialty stores fell 3.3 percent.
Non-store retailers — a category that’s dominated by Amazon, but also includes traditional retail’s e-commerce efforts — saw November sales jump 11.5 percent year-over-year.
Barring any severe weather, Super Saturday for both online and brick-and-mortar retailing is expected to be big. Johnson of Customer Growth Partners predicts $34 billion in U.S. sales on that day, excluding restaurants, auto and gas, compared to about $31.5 billion last year. For the holiday season overall, Johnson forecasts holiday sales, online and brick-and-mortar combined, to be up 5.2 percent this year.