Holidays may be less jolly for retailers
It might not be the best shopping season for consumers either.
Data released Wednesday by ShopperTrak forecast a 3.3% increase in holiday sales this year, down slightly from the 3.7% gain seen in 2011. Foot traffic to retail stores is expected to rise 2.8%, the first gain since 2007, the latest sign of the growing confidence of American consumers.
July retail sales rose more than expected, quelling concerns that consumers would slam their checkbooks shut at the first sign of worrisome economic trends. As Bloomberg News noted, purchases climbed in all 13 categories for the first time since 2005. Experts, though, urge caution given that unemployment continues to hover over 8%.
"We are in the slight less jolly camp," said Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics at Moody's Analytics, in an interview. "We don't think it's going to be wonderful holiday season but we don't think it's going to be terrible either."
Whether the holiday spirit will be seen equally across the sector remains to be seen. General merchandise retailers such as Wal-Mart (WMT), Target (TGT) and Sears Holdings (SHLD) attract a different type of shopper than specialty chains such as Limited Brands (LTD) Urban Outfitters (URBN) and Abercrombie & Fitch (AF). Tiffany & Co.'s (TIF) recent earnings miss raised questions about the resilience of the higher-end consumers though other companies serving these consumers such as Michael Kors (KORS) are doing well.
The two big unknowns for consumers remain gas prices and the stock market. Prices for fuel have a direct impact on the amount of discretionary income people have to spend on gifts. Retail gas prices are expected to average $3.58 per gallon in the fourth quarter, down from $3.66 in the third, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Worries about Europe and the U.S. fiscal cliff continue to weigh-down the stock market and may intensify s the year draws to a close.
Even a somewhat jolly holiday season will probably be good for Barack Obama's re-election prospects even though some investors believe he deserves a lump of coal from Santa for his economic policies.
Jonathan Berr is long Target and Wal-Mart. Follow him on Twitter @jdberr.
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