By David Moin
with contributions from Kali Hays
 on November 22, 2017
Macy's New York City on Black Friday, 2015.

The stars might finally be aligned for retailers this holiday season.

It’s been a tough few years for fashion stores all over, with the rise of Amazon and its price wars with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Millennials holding back on material things in favor of experiences and divisive politics distracting from those good ol’ times at the mall.

Nevertheless, retailers are headed into Black Friday weekend poised with inventories better aligned to categories that are selling and sense some pent-up demand for fall-winter goods, after severe weather including the hurricanes that hit Texas and Florida.

They’re buoyed by a healthier economy and more confident consumer than a year ago and perpetually rising digital sales, and have tweaked the assortments for variety in terms of products and prices, reaching out to a wider scope of shoppers and stocking certain items they don’t carry year-round.

In addition, the calendar works in their favor. Christmas falls on a Monday, meaning there’s a whole weekend for last-minute gift shopping.

Industry executives sense momentum approaching Black Friday, following a round of generally positive reports of revenue growth during the last quarter. “The tailwinds are strong, with year-to-date sales (online) up 24 percent from last year,” said Ken Cassar, an analyst from Slice, a market research firm with a Silicon Valley and e-commerce orientation.

However, the consensus is that Black Friday continues to lose steam as it had over the past few years, due to many stores opening on Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday promotions unleashed early in November, and Cyber Monday, which enables consumers to avoid store crowds and sucks some of the wind out of Black Friday.

“Black Friday is just not what it used to be,” according to Chris G. Christopher Jr., executive director of  IHS Market, the research firm. “Retailers have been offering heavy price discounts in early November, online sales have taken an expanded role during the holiday season, and the payroll tracker from IHS Market is forecasting a mega payday on Dec. 1, which would push more holiday spending into December.

According to Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group, “While Black Friday is still a major draw, that draw is increasingly shifting to online spending rather than the in-store rush of crowds we typically associate with this key shopping day. In addition to online stealing some spotlight from brick-and-mortar on Black Friday, Black Friday is on its way to becoming more of an online shopping draw than Cyber Monday is — constant promotions driven by retail’s desire to capture consumer dollars have given consumers a bounty of shopping days to choose from, and Black Friday is at the top of the heap.”

There’s still a long list of Thanksgiving Day store openings. Macy’s in many locations, including the Herald Square flagship will open at 5 p.m.; Belk stores will open at 4 p.m.; J.C. Penney stores, 2 p.m., and Kmart will beat them all, with its units set to open at 6 a.m.

Pedestrians pass a Kmart location in New York. Sears Holdings Corp. is announcing, that it will close 68 Kmart stores and 10 Sears stores as it struggles to restore profitabilitySears-Layoffs, New York, USA

Pedestrians pass a Kmart location in New York.  Franklin II/AP/REX/Shutterstock

“Stores will adjust to the physical and ethical purposes for opening, or not, on Thanksgiving this year,” said Cohen. “Look for some stores to open with partial hours, or not at all, as we see the novelty of Thanksgiving Day shopping wear off and retailers learn how to make up for closing, both before and after Thursday.”

Still, IHS Market indicated that “consumer spending continues to be supported by elevated levels of confidence and solid gains in employment, real disposable income, and household net worth. The strong gains in the equity markets will also assist in boosting luxury and discretionary spending this holiday season.”

Estimates for holiday sales range from 3 percent to just over 4 percent ahead of last year, though digital transactions are seen rising double digits, as high as in the mid-teens. “The 2017 holiday season promises to set a new high-water mark in online sales, but, equally importantly, in performance against consumer expectations,” Slice’s Casar said. “The e-commerce channel is hitting on all cylinders, offering consumers the best of all worlds: low prices, broad selection, and quick and reliable order fulfillment.”

On Tuesday, Neiman Marcus Inc. reported comparable revenue gains for the last quarter, with chief executive officer Karen Katz telling WWD that the momentum is continuing this quarter.

And as one senior-level department store executive told WWD, “We are in a good place. We are past the concerns and distractions of last year’s election. Consumption is at a better level. We are coming into a better weather pattern and there is a better diversification of product offerings, versus dependency on one category. There is an opportunity for the segment to perform a little better.”

Cowen & Co. reported that November month-to-date traffic is only negative 1.8 percent, representing the smallest monthly decline in 2017 versus negative 8 percent year-to-date, suggesting some busier malls.

Still, Cowen wasn’t all that upbeat. “Negative traffic will likely persist…speed remains critical so that retailers can shift gears on product assortment quickly. All retailers also need to find ways to convert digital traffic to physical traffic in ways that are seamless, frictionless, and actually add convenience to shoppers.”

Cowen favors retailers with “deep value” or “super-premium luxury”; those doing a good job integrating “physical bricks with digital clicks” and those with “un-Amazon-able” characteristics.

“From a product perspective, our favorite holiday ideas include new innovation in denim, mixed materials in fabrications, sherpa hoodies, velvet, Nintendo Switch and a new generation of yoga pants,” Cowen wrote in its report on holiday 2017. “We also expect glitter, gold, and rose gold to be major ideas across clothing and accessories. We think this holiday season is likely to be the season for smaller brands and ideas to win. Also, given the rise of social media, lower barriers to entry at new pure-play brands, and a continued focus on personalization will likely be themes.”

Other trends expected to accelerate are price matching, gift cards, automating homes with new kinds of electronics,  shipping deals, quicker deliveries and TV price wars. As Deal News listed among other discounts, the LG 65-inch TV is priced at $799.99 “which is $170 below our predicted average for a name-brand 65” 4K TV. The Amazon Echo voice-controlled speaker is listed as another good deal, priced at $79.99, and “deals on the Echo’s direct competitor, Google Home, will also be in abundance, with a bevy of retailers selling it for a buck less than the Echo.”

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