Is holiday sales surge sustainable?

Shares of retailers bounced on bullish reports from Black Friday. But experts are urging caution.

By Jonathan Berr Nov 28, 2011 2:43PM
Image: Credit card (© Burke/Triolo Productions/BrandX/Getty Images)Lost amidst the hoopla over the record $52 billion in Black Friday weekend sales and the expected $1.2 billion in Cyber Monday revenue was much discussion over whether those gains are sustainable. The jury is still out.

Consumers remain stressed due to high unemployment and a lackluster real estate market, neither of which is showing signs of rapid improvement. A recent Gallup Poll found that 49% of Americans are feeling better about their financial situation, down from 53% a few months ago. Experts are not expecting consumers to splurge much this year.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) expects holiday retail sales to rise 2.8% to $465.6 billion, below the 5.2% gain seen last year, a performance the trade group described as "average." Some experts argue that aggressive promotions by retailers are bumping up holiday spending that would have happened anyway by a few weeks. 

Nonetheless, an "average" holiday would be good news considering the pervasiveness of dismal economic statistics, including one showing that nearly a third of the 14 million people who are unemployed have not had a job for a year or more. The housing market remains troubled and President Obama predicted in August that it will slowly rebound over the next two years.

Wall Street, though, likes what it has seen so far in the holiday season retail sales. Shares of retailers Wal-Mart (WMT), Target (TGT), Macy's (M), Costco (COST) and other retailers advanced on bullish reports from Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Experts, however, are urging caution.

"It's not like people are singing 'Happy Days Are Here Again,'" says Chris Christopher, an economist with IHS Global Insight, in an interview. "October retail sales numbers were unusual because the (latest) iPhone came out.  Our models are indicating that November will be good and that December will not be as good as November."

Christopher is more bullish on the holiday season than the NRF, expecting sales to rise 4.2%, down from the 5.2% increase in 2010, which followed two straight declines. These numbers, though, may not be as robust as they first seem. He noted that about half of the 2011 sales gain comes from price increases and that prices were falling in 2010.

"Even though, the number does seem to be pretty good... I don't want to give the impression that things are great," he says. "People are spending, but you can say they are not cheerful about things."

The outlook for the holiday season, though, isn't entirely bleak.

Americans on average plan to spend $764 on holiday gifts this year, up 7% from last year, according to Gallup. Gasoline prices have dropped by more than 8.6 cents per gallon over the past month, easing the financial pain of consumers have felt while filling up at the pump.    E-commerce sales should also do well this holiday season. Christopher expects seasonally adjusted retail sales to top $50 billion, a 12.5% increase, for the first time in the fourth quarter.

In these uncertain economic times, a mediocre holiday season is good news because many worried that a subpar performance would foreshadow a double-dip recession.

--Jonathan Berr owns shares of Target. Follow him on Twitter@jdberr.




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