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Mixed Signals Come From Retail Sector as Holidays Draw Near

The retail sector continues to send mixed signals heading into the holiday season.

Although the latest figures from the U.S. Commerce Department on retail sales topped analysts' expectations, many of the gains came from a jump in sales of automobile and vehicle parts.

According to the National Retail Federation, retail industry sales were actually flat when seasonally adjusted from September and fell 1.3 percent year-over-year. Their figure strips out sales from automobiles, gas stations and restaurants.

Richard Hastings, a consumer strategist at Global Hunter Securities, sees the increase in motor vehicle sales as a postive trend, as it shows that consumers are feeling confident enough to enter into contracts.

The NRF also sees some reasons to be optimistic within the retail sales data. They noted several retail categories showed improvement in October. These included clothing and accessories, sporting goods, book and music, and personal care stores. But housing-related categories such as furniture and home improvement continued to struggle.

The industry group continues to forecast a decline in holiday sales of 1.0 percent, and industry analysts have issued forecasts on both sides of that number.

There are a couple of new surveys out today looking closely at the consumer. One survey from BDO Seidman polled chief marketing officers at leading U.S. retailers. These executives are expecting sales on "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving, and on "Cyber Monday," the first Monday after Thanksgiving, to be up 1.8 percent.

While that may sound like good news for the sector, analysts have mixed feelings about what Black Friday sales will tell us about the holiday season overall. The day has long been seen as the kickoff to the holiday selling season, but retailers have been planning more promotions and discounts and special events to drive customers into stores.

Keeping that in mind, some industry watchers say strong sales on Black Friday would indicate consumers' price-sensitivity more than they would signal a cheery holiday season around the bend.

Indeed, market researcher NPD Group released a survey Monday that shows consumers have put "comparison shopping" and "value" at the top of their holiday lists.

"All of our indications suggest that consumers will shop but be more cautious in their approach," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group. "The study's results show consumers will be doing their homework a bit more carefully this year."

Some 45 percent of the those polled by NPD said they will comparison shop before they buy. That's a five-year high.

In addition, about 37 percent of those surveyed said they plan to buy all their holiday gifts on sale.

Retailers are ready for this. In the BDO Seidman survey, the vast majority of retailers — some 96 percent — said they will increase promotions and discounts this year.

"Retailers plan to focus on promotions for the entire holiday season so there will be less emphasis on Black Friday and Cyber Monday than in years past," said Ted Vaughan, a partner at BDO Seidman.

There's a big danger to retailers in this. If retailers need to discount heavily to coax consumers out to shop, they may lose a lot of their big sales gains.

The one thing working in retailers' favor is that they have been planning this for a long while, and inventories are lean.

Cohen expects this fact will help put consumers through "discount detox." He explains that if consumers wait for deeper and deeper discounts this year, they may miss out on getting the gifts they want the most.

Of course, one gift that is always in stock are gift cards, and apparently they are in demand. American Express polled more than 2,000 adults between Oct. 29 and Nov. 2 and found that gift cards will be the big gift of the season, with 58 percent of consumers planning to purchase them.

This poll, which is one of the freshest reads on consumers' mindset, found 10 percent of consumers plan to spend more than they did last year, while 43 percent plan to spend about the same.

What's more, more than one in five U.S. consumers, 22 percent, plan to spend more than they did in the last 30-day period.

Given how bad last year's holiday season was, that could make all the difference.

Dan Greenhouse, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabek, said the stock market's recent rally could be behind the newfound optimism.

"I think, in a simple way, a 60-something percent rally in the stock market does a whole lot to ensure that the higher income individuals are going to go out and spend, and considering that the top quintile accounts for 50 percent of spending, I remain encouraged as long as the stock market is moving higher," Greenhouse said.

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