If retailers' third-quarter earnings reports are any indication, this holiday season is shaping up to be yet another year of tepid sales growth, with revenue under pressure from stores that are just muddling through.
But while the broader picture isn't all merry and bright, for some retailers, that macro view really doesn't matter.
As consumers' spending habits evolve, there are a handful of companies who — just by the nature of what they sell — are poised to be the big winners this holiday season.
Along those lines, there are a few companies that have evolved their merchandise to keep pace with customer preferences, and are also positioned to carry their momentum through the fourth quarter.
And as shoppers bifurcate their spending into value or luxury purchases, the players who cater to each of those extremes are also expected to have a Merry Christmas.
On the flip side, those retailers that compete for the middle-income shopper's dollars, who have excess inventories, or who are forced to rely on discounts to move their merchandise, are at risk of falling short this season.
"Most department stores, specialty retailers and brands reported lackluster third-quarter results and a guarded view of [the fourth quarter]," Goldman Sachs analyst Lindsay Drucker Mann wrote in a recent note to investors. "While business momentum is likely to pick up in coming weeks with Black Friday and the colder weather (hopefully), the industry appears too far behind to make up for the slow start."
According to Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, demand for toys and sporting goods, home-related items and online transactions are expected to outpace other categories this season.
Johnson attributed his firm's forecast for 4.9 percent growth in toys and sporting goods to demand for Disney's "Star Wars" merchandise. As for home improvement and furnishings, rising home values should encourage consumers to invest in their houses, Johnson said.
Meanwhile, although online sales trends continue to decelerate, Customer Growth Partners predicts they will nonetheless increase by 7 percent this season, outperforming its prediction for 3.2 percent growth overall.
In addition to these categories, analysts expect the momentum to continue for brands that sell athletic apparel and footwear, including Nike, Foot Locker and Under Armour. Along those lines, Citi analyst Paul Lejuez has named Lululemon as one of his top stock picks for the holiday season.
Other retailers that are expected to drive retail sales growth this holiday include value retailers such as TJX and Ross, and those who cater to the ultra-affluent. Analysts have, however, expressed caution on luxury stocks, as slowing tourism trends and a shift away from material goods continue to weigh on these brands.
Meanwhile, those who appeal to middle-income shoppers are expected to feel the squeeze.
Earlier this month, Macy's sent shock waves through the retail sector, when it said slow sales trends during the third quarter would force it to mark down merchandise during the holiday period. This caused analysts to raise a cautionary flag on the rest of the department store set, as deep discounts at Macy's will put pressure on its competitors to match prices.
"We also expect Kohl's to be impacted by Macy's fourth-quarter strategies, though less so than J.C. Penney since it has the benefit of being off-mall," he told investors.
Gap, in particular, is expected to have another rough holiday season, as changes from the company's new design team will not take hold until the spring. Analysts are also cautious on Urban Outfitters, which in addition to falling short on comparable sales during the third quarter, warned that the fourth quarter is off to a slow start.
Goldman's Drucker Mann sounded a similar note of caution over specialty retailers, saying that deceleration in department stores' comparable sales tends to be mirrored by these smaller stores.
In addition to American Eagle and Abercrombie & Fitch, she listed Express and Lululemon as being in the crosshairs this holiday season.
But not all mall-based retailers will feel the squeeze. Victoria's Secret parent L Brands continues to top many analysts' lists of predicted holiday winners. And although teen retailer American Eagle has been lumped in with those challenged by broader apparel deflation, analysts noted its fashion and sales continue to improve.
Along those lines, J.C. Penney is entering the holiday season as the surprise front-runner among department stores, after posting the strongest same-store sales results during the third quarter.
As far as the big off-mall retailers, analysts are waiting to see whether Wal-Mart's decision to draw the line on free shipping of online orders will pay off. Meanwhile, Target noted in its third-quarter earnings call that it's encouraged by its momentum.
And Best Buy warned that a decline in broader consumer electronics sales could weigh on its performance in the fourth quarter.
"Many stores selling strictly discretionary goods will find this another tough season, with excess inventory and rampant promotions," Johnson said.
The laundry list of anticipated winners and losers this holiday season, conjures up memories of last holiday. That shows just how important it is for retailers to continue churning out innovative merchandise, to keep things interesting for their customers, said Farla Efros, president of HRC Advisory.
Joe Jackman, CEO of Jackman Reinvents, added that it's easier for retailers who are experiencing sales gains to keep their momentum, as they have the cash necessary to invest in digital or other growth.
"In fashion, you're only as good as your last season," Efros said. "Quarter to quarter, it's super critical to get it as right as possible."