Retail

Why one stormy weekend could make an already tough holiday season worse

Key Points
  • Mastercard SpendingPulse expects U.S. retail sales excluding automobiles to grow 3.1% from Nov. 1 to Dec. 24.
  • That's compared with 5.1% growth during the same period in 2018.
  • Mastercard expects the busiest days for holiday spending will be Black Friday, followed by Dec. 21, Dec. 14, Dec. 20, Dec. 7 and Dec. 13.
An employee works on a display ahead of the holiday season at a Walmart store in Chicago.
Kamil Krzaczynski | Reuters

It looks like holiday spending might not be as robust this year as last year, and one snowy December weekend could make matters much worse for retailers.

Mastercard SpendingPulse, which measures consumer spending across all payment types including cash and check, is calling for U.S. retail sales excluding automobiles to grow 3.1% from Nov. 1 to Dec. 24. That's compared with 5.1% growth during the same period in 2018.

Growth of 3.1% — or a 3.8% increase excluding gasoline in addition to automotive sales — is "in line with the solid performance" thus far in 2019, Mastercard said.

To top that off, there's a shift in the calendar year, putting six fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas compared with a year ago. That's actually the shortest holiday calendar possible.

Walmart and Target have both already said they're preparing for the calendar crunch, by kicking off deals earlier than ever before and devoting more money to payroll to staff stores.

"I think what you're going to get is a little more pressure on those weekends in between Thanksgiving and Christmas," Steve Sadove, senior advisor for Mastercard and former CEO and chairman of Saks, said in an interview with CNBC. "If you get a [bad] weather event of some kind, that's even more risk."

Other already-released holiday sales forecasts are a bit more optimistic.

A survey by the National Retail Federation estimates holiday retail sales will grow between 3.8% and 4.2% this year, excluding automobiles, gasoline and restaurants. Consulting firm Coresight Research is calling for a 4% increase in U.S. retail sales this November and December.

Another trend that could impact holiday sales is that consumers are spending more on experiences rather than apparel, according to Mastercard.

Mastercard expects the busiest days for holiday spending will be Black Friday, followed by Dec. 21, Dec. 14, Dec. 20, Dec. 7 and Dec. 13.

And though the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China has posed some risk to retailers ahead of the holidays, threatening supply chains overseas, Sadove said he doesn't expect that to hit sales in 2019. "If there is going to be an impact, you will see it in [2020]," he said.

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