Department stores kick off 2018 with stock rally

Key Points
  • Wall Street rallied behind America's department stores on the first trading day in 2018, sending their stocks higher.
  • To be sure, about this same time last year, retailers Sears, Macy's and J.C. Penney announced they would be closing more stores across the U.S., sending shockwaves through the industry.
  • Retail consultants are expecting another wave of closures in 2018.
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Department stores so far are having a happy new year.

Encouraged by momentum from early holiday sales results, and anticipating more good news for the industry later this month, Wall Street was cheering these retailers Tuesday, sending their stocks higher.

Shares of J.C. Penney closed the day up nearly 11 percent, Macy's rose 4.5 percent, and Kohl's and Nordstrom ended the afternoon up about 4 percent.

"Everybody had a better Christmas than we thought they were gonna have, and that includes Kohl's, Penney's and Macy's," Jan Kniffen, CEO of J. Rogers Kniffen Worldwide Enterprises, said Tuesday on CNBC's "Squawk Box."

"And that doesn't mean Macy's and Dillard's had positive store comps," Kniffen added. "But they had better than what people thought."

Shares of Dillard's, a smaller Arkansas-based chain, ended Tuesday up 1 percent, while Sears Holdings, parent company of Sears and Kmart stores, climbed 5.5 percent.

According to Craig Johnson, an industry consultant and president of Customer Growth Partners, retailers are slated to post their best growth for the holiday season — up nearly 6 percent — in more than a decade.

Meantime, the National Retail Federation, the industry's trade group, has said holiday sales could climb as much as 4 percent, compared with 2016's growth of 3.6 percent. NRF CEO Matthew Shay is set to announce and comment on final results later this month.

At the end of December, Mastercard's SpendingPulse survey revealed that between Nov. 1 and Christmas Eve, holiday retail sales (excluding automotive sales), rose 4.9 percent compared with the same period last year, marking the biggest year-over-year increase the company has tracked since 2011.

"Specialty apparel and department stores ... saw moderate gains," the report said. "This is particularly impressive given recent store closings."

Multiple department store CEOs, including Jeff Gennette of Macy's and Kevin Mansell of Kohl's, have already called out strong holiday sales ahead of their fourth-quarter earnings reports, which will show exact same-store sales and other key metrics.

"I think there is a lot of excitement about the robust holiday sales numbers and investors believe that this will have helped the department store sector," Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, told CNBC.

"However, it is a very much a short-term boost and does not mean the structural issues with the sector have been fully resolved," he cautioned.

About this same time last year, Sears, Macy's and J.C. Penney announced they would be closing more stores across the U.S., sending shockwaves through the industry. For most of 2017, department store chains struggled to recuperate and move away from a "dying" narrative.

This year, retail consultants are expecting another wave of closures from certain companies, while names like Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Aldi and TJX (the owner of T.J. Maxx and HomeGoods) continue to expand their physical footprints.