The case for a retail boost in 2015

After slogging along much of the past year, is the retail industry in any better shape for 2015?

According to Jefferies analyst Randal Konik, there are a number of factors that should give specialty stores a boost in the new year, including more modest inventory levels, a stronger macroeconomic backdrop, and better integration of online and in-store offerings.

His prediction comes after a sluggish 2014 for apparel retailers, who struggled to compete against discount and low-price stores, particularly as there was no overriding fashion trend compelling shoppers to splurge.

The malls came alive this holiday season, and that is a good sign on the economy for 2015.
Brian Sozzi

Still, while there are a number of tail winds for the sector, Konik cautioned that the first quarter could remain "a little choppy," as consumer demand continues to wobble.

"After a tough year, we remain constructive on retail stocks into 2015," Konik wrote in a note to investors.

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One key difference this year is that retailers acted more cautiously when placing their holiday orders in 2014. According to BDO, which surveyed 100 chief merchandising officers ahead of the holidays, 55 percent said they planned to keep their inventory levels in-line with 2013. That's despite the fact that the majority of respondents said they expected higher sales.

By placing orders that align more closely with consumer demand, retailers are able to avoid last-minute fire sales to clear out excess seasonal product, therefore starting the year with more full-price items.

"They certainly did not advertise in December like they were in panic mode," said Britt Beemer, founder of America's Research Group.

That doesn't mean shoppers will have to wave goodbye to promotions. Both Konik and Beemer said stores will continue to use discounts as a means to drive sales, though Beemer added they would be more proactive than reactive—and therefore less detrimental to margins.

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Retailers' margins in 2015 also stand to gain from lower cotton prices, and from lapping easier comparisons from last year, Konik said.

Analyst's view: Sell Sears, Kohl's & Target
Analyst's view: Sell Sears, Kohl's & Target

There are also a number of external factors that should benefit retailers in 2015, Konik said. Among them: Consumer sentiment is at a nearly eight-year high, gas prices are at three-year lows and the unemployment rate is consistently below 6 percent.

Although there are still challenges facing consumers—muted wage growth, for one—"we expect the consumer condition to continue to improve in 2015," Konik said.

"As macro pressures become less of a headwind in the specialty retail space, it is our hope that evolving omnichannel capabilities and a more exciting fashion cycle in 2015 will once again reinvigorate consumer spending on apparel, and to some extent accessories and jewelry," he said.

Beemer, on the other hand, was less optimistic about the specialty sector. He said one common complaint he hears from shoppers is that they spend too much money when they go to the mall; therefore, they prefer to visit freestanding stores to keep their budgets in line.

His firm's research predicts the biggest winners from the holiday season will include low-price names such as Wal-Mart, the dollar stores and TJX—a trend he anticipates will continue into 2015.

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"The guys in the middle keep getting squashed more and more," Beemer said. "I think the apparel specialty retailers that are mall-based are going to be hit even harder this year."

Analysts have also pointed to the ongoing shift toward electronics and other nonapparel categories as a headwind, while congestion at the ports could delay shipments of some spring inventories.

Although it's still too early to say how the holidays panned out for retailers, the next indication will come Thursday, when companies including L Brands and Gap report their same-store sales figures for December. Analysts are anticipating relatively strong results, as traffic picked up after the post-Black Friday lull and retailers lapped the wet and chilly winter in 2013.

"All in, we expect positive news for the sector in the coming weeks," Sterne Agee analyst Ike Boruchow wrote in a note to investors.

Beemer, on the other hand, said overall holiday sales will likely fall short of expectations and ring in around 2.5 percent to 3 percent higher. He does, however, expect January and February to be "huge."

"There were more gift cards than ever bought this season," he said. "I think it would bode [well] for January, Februrary."