Retail Will Not Be Better this Year: Consultants

U.S. chain stores, reeling from the slowest holiday shopping season in five years, got some more bad news Sunday: 2008 will not be any better and could see changes that may shift the retail playing field forever.

As the National Retail Federation kicked off its annual convention in New York, two retail consultants offered negative outlooks for the U.S. retail industry, which has seen consumers pull back amid higher gasoline and food prices, a credit crunch and a prolonged housing market decline.

"It's anarchy," said Wendy Liebmann, chief executive of WSL Strategic Retail, frequently repeating the word she used to sum up the latest results of her company's bi-annual shopper study.

"Americans cannot control the big things such as oil prices, falling home values, mortgage costs and rising property taxes, so they want to control the small things," Liebmann said. "They are watching what they spend on everything."

Liebmann said most shoppers were making fewer weekly shopping trips and spending significantly less on discretionary items such as home appliances and decor, fashion accessories, electronics, perfume, computers and software.

Food and Pet Supplies

The only two categories getting a larger share of consumers' wallets are food and pet supplies, Liebmann said, noting however, that food prices have increased.

But with shoppers changing their habits, opportunities also emerge, she noted.

Liebmann projected this year's winning retail sectors will be department stores such as Saks and J.C. Penney, in part because they have improved their offerings, and drug stores such as CVS Caremark , that have added things such as better brands of beauty products and in-store health clinics.

Losers are likely to be mass merchants like Wal-Mart Stores and Target, and specialty stores such as Barnes & Noble, Liebmann said, citing the impact of shoppers making fewer trips and spending more prudently.

Yet retailers with exposure to emerging markets such as China and India may be able to offset the weakness in the United States, according to a report by Deloitte Research.

Rebalance of Power

As consumer spending slows in the United States, it is speeding up in Asia, said Ira Kalish, global director of Deloitte Research. He said the global economy is transforming from how it was over the last decade.

"U.S. consumes, China produces and everyone's happy -- that ... can't last forever," Kalish said, adding that the imbalance is "starting to unwind and will impact where spending growth takes place."

"Global economic growth in 2008 is likely to be slow," Kalish said, citing a slowdown in U.S. consumer spending and modest decelerations in Europe and Japan as well.

"The main engine of global growth will continue to be China and, to a lesser extent, India and the major oil producing countries," in the Persian Gulf and Russia, Kalish said.

Aside from that geographic shift, other trends in global retailing include increased focus on added services, such as Best Buy's Geek Squad, social responsibility, improving customers' shopping experiences and retailers aggressively improving their marketing messages, Kalish said.