Christmas already? Retail gambles on consumer mood

Deep-discount hangover
Deep-discount hangover

It's hard enough to get a good read on how the consumer is feeling today, so how are retailers expected to know what they'll be thinking this Christmas?

As tall as this order is, it's precisely the guessing game retailers are forced to play as they place—or in many cases, have already placed—their holiday orders.

As a result of the months-long time lag between putting in orders and seeing the items on shelves, merchandising teams are parsing through a mix of contradictory data to make predictions. They are weighing spurred job growth and an improving housing story, juxtaposed against a bevy of earnings misses from retailers, who were hurt by bad weather and a resistant consumer.

"I think that what we're seeing early would be that there's slight optimism for the holiday season, and the order levels are reflecting that," said Steve Barr, PwC's U.S. retail and consumer practice leader. "[But] it's a very long way away and a lot can happen between now and then."

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In 2013, retailers entered the holiday ordering season with a renewed sense of confidence, according to Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners. But as the year progressed, they experienced a series of downward steps in demand, including the Fourth of July and Labor Day holidays. This left many stores with excess inventory and contributed to what some considered the most promotional holiday on record.

The challenge in getting the right assortment in the proper quantities is an even bigger challenge for bricks-and-mortar stores, which risk losing a sale entirely if a certain item isn't in stock in the right color or size, Barr said.

"That makes it very challenging for the store-based retailers," he said.

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Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, said it's not just about having the right inventory, but having it at the right price and the right time. He said that if he were a retailer, he would have focused on securing deals with manufacturers to create even better early-bird specials than last year, when sales kicked off at many stores on Thanksgiving Day.

According to his firm's research, if a customer enters a retailer's store for its Black Friday sales, there's a 70 percent chance they will return two or three more times during the Christmas season. If they don't walk into a particular store in those beginning days, there's a 30 percent chance they won't come at all that season.

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"If you look at the last six Christmases, the retailers who have won the early-bird-special war have won the Christmas war," he said.

Shoppers in the driver seat

As summer approaches and the promotional environment persists, PwC's Barr said it's important for retailers to offer a unique assortment to prevent further price erosion at Christmas.

He said the retailers who have kept their merchandise unique and fresh are those who have been able to protect their margins. One example of this is Anthropologie, which stayed off the price-slashing bandwagon last Christmas by offering unique clothing and household goods that consumers deemed worth the full price.

"Over the last several holiday seasons the retailers have conditioned the consumers to expect discounting," Barr said. "The question for this holiday season will be has discounting become the norm? Or is discounting a tool that the retailers use to push through product that isn't turning well?"

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ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin said 2013 was an unusual holiday because it was the "very first time that we really can look at weather as the likely culprit."

He said that except for a bit of volatility—for example, one week home sales are up, and the next they're down—the economy is looking more favorable. This includes a buildup in demand tied to the long winter, which has led to shoppers hitting the stores as the weather has improved. As such, he anticipates that sales this Christmas will post another year of growth, so long as no "unusual situations" occur, such as a major shift in the global economy.

And despite the fact that ShopperTrak data saw a 15 percent drop in traffic last holiday—a trend that retailers noted in their first-quarter earnings reports has persisted into 2014—Martin said he expects in-store sales to continue moving higher, as shoppers research products online and buy them in a store.

"We're seeing people come to the stores who are well-informed," he said.

Another issue that bore the brunt of the blame last holiday was a shorter calendar, which saw six fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, compared to the prior year. But as the calendar shifts, this timeframe begins to elongate in 2014.

Beemer, however, is not convinced the changing calendar has as much influence as some people say. While last year's shorter holiday saw sales gains of 3.8 percent, according to the National Retail Federation, they only grew 3 percent the prior year.

"My theory is it isn't how many days there are between Thanksgiving and Christmas. ... It's how many days between Thanksgiving and Christmas that consumers see 50 percent off," he said.

By CNBC's Krystina Gustafson.