Besides Amazon, here are the companies winning the holiday season

  • Not every company will come out crowned a winner this holiday season, as certain sectors are struggling to win dollars against internet giant Amazon.
  • The true test will come as retailers report their quarterly earnings, which include holiday sales, after the New Year.
  • Despite predictions for strong holiday sales, only a "handful" of industry analysts have raised their earnings projections to date, with many anxiously awaiting "Super Saturday."
Holiday shoppers at Macy's in New York
Getty Images
Holiday shoppers at Macy's in New York

All signs point to the strongest holiday shopping season in years.

There have been long lines at stores, record sales online, and the usual December lull — when shoppers typically disappear after Black Friday only to return in the final days before Christmas — hasn't been as quiet.

Retail consulting firm Customer Growth Partners raised its holiday sales forecast to 5.6 percent growth, up from 4.3 percent. If that pace holds, it would make 2017 the strongest holiday season since 2005, just prior to the Great Recession.

To be sure, not every retailer will come out crowned a winner this year, as certain sectors are struggling more than others to win dollars against internet giant Amazon, which is predicted to capture as much as 50 percent of all online holiday sales.

The true test will come as companies begin to report their quarterly earnings, which include holiday sales, after the New Year.

"Not all retail sectors have thrived ... with women's apparel retailers and sporting goods seeing sluggish sales at best," CGP President Craig Johnson explained.

Some of the best growth is stemming from home improvement retailers, off-price chains and supercenters, according to his firm. That would include names like Home Depot, Lowe's, TJ Maxx, Ross Stores, Best Buy and Walmart — notably all of which are typically situated off-mall and in their own strip center.

On Wednesday, heading into the final days before Christmas, Home Depot, Lowe's and Ross all watched their stocks trade at all-time high levels.

At the malls, "department stores, while far lagging peak performance levels of many years ago, are more of a mixed bag, with better in-store traffic than dour expectations, along with improving online growth," Johnson added.

Already falling victim to too much promotional activity, department store chain J.C. Penney warned in October that this holiday season would be another disappointment, slashing its 2017 profit and comparable sales forecasts. The company explained it had been discounting heavily ahead of the holidays to get rid of excess inventory.

Other mall stocks (including rivals Macy's and Kohl's) fell on the news, as investors have since feared this would become more of an industry-wide trend. Namely, Wall Street is still worried that some retail sectors aren't ringing up enough purchases to cover hefty expenses related to markdowns, returns, packaging and shipping, and other last-minute mishaps.

Teen apparel retailer American Eagle Outfitters warned earlier this month that while it expects strong holiday earnings, fourth-quarter margins will likely be lower than a year ago, hampered by greater warehousing and shipping costs, and more promotions.

Meanwhile, companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Gap (with Old Navy and Athleta) have been pushing major store-wide sales, while names like Michael Kors and Urban Outfitters (with Anthropologie) appear to have tapered their deals, according to Jefferies analyst Randal Konik.

On a brighter note, the typical post-Black Friday lull hasn't been as pronounced this year, Konik added, based on his firm's latest mall checks. The traffic boost could help balance out apparel retailers' heavier promotions in particular.

While store traffic spiked over Thanksgiving weekend, shoppers are still hanging around, he said, and consistently so, ahead of "Super Saturday" — the last weekend shopping day before Christmas.

The final countdown

The clock is ticking, and the pressure is on for retailers to win sales of holiday procrastinators. This year, with Christmas falling on a Monday, there's one extra full weekend to ring up purchases, and that weekend could move the needle for some names.

"Super Saturday has gotten added importance given there is some momentum now on the brick-and-mortar side," Retail Metrics Founder Ken Perkins told CNBC. "I think a really strong day would do a lot to give analysts more conviction to raise earnings estimates here."

To date, Perkins has only seen a "handful" of industry analysts raise their fourth-quarter earnings projections albeit strong November sales results and heightened December momentum for many brands.

The 106 publicly traded retailers in Retail Metrics' earnings index (which includes names such as Sears, J.C. Penney, Costco and PVH) are currently expected to post a "very modest" 2.4 percent increase in fourth-quarter earnings compared with a year ago, according to the firm.

Having been "burned" so many times in the past for setting expectations too high, this year Wall Street appears to be taking a more conservative approach, he said, and many people are awaiting Super Saturday, which could amount to the biggest shopping day of the year.

Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters are currently expecting a 1.7 percent jump overall in retailers' fourth-quarter same-store sales, which would be better than 2016's 0.8 percent increase, but not as good as some would anticipate with such lofty holiday projections.

The National Retail Federation, the industry's trade group, has been more conservative and is sticking with its initial forecast, anticipating holiday retail sales to rise as much as 4 percent and reaching up to $682 billion.

Meanwhile, retail stocks tell another part of the overall story. Some of the best performers include American Eagle, Gap, Michael Kors and Lululemon, while the laggards consist of struggling women's apparel brands Ascena Retail Group, Francesca's and Stein Mart, department store stocks, and those of their landlords.

Meanwhile, Evercore ISI recently calculated that over the past 20 years, there has been a roughly 85 percent correlation between the S&P 500's fourth-quarter performance and holiday retail sales. That index of stocks is up about 6.5 percent so far this quarter, implying holiday sales would climb as much as that amount.

"It will be interesting to see how everything pans out for everyone else," Perkins said. "But of course, Amazon will have another stellar holiday."