Is Shopping Headed for a Pre-Christmas Slump?

Get ready for some consumers to snap their purses shut in October.


Although retail sales in September were solid, the spending was concentrated in the first half of the month, when there was a need to stock up on new fall clothing for back-to-school. With the closet restocked, there is a good reason to fear that consumers will likely find little reason to spend in October.

Welcome to the new reality: consumers want to—or have to—pay in cash, and that means for many, it's time to starting pinching pennies to save up for holiday gifts.

"I would suspect that once we get past this period, we will see the numbers start to sag a little bit," said Frank Badillo, senior economist at Retail Forward.

Sales in recent months have been choppy, and consumers are not parting with their dollars easily.

This may explain why many retailers refrained from raising earnings forecasts for the third quarter, despite reporting stronger-than-expected same-store sales in September.

"Look at a company like JCPenney ," said JP Morgan retail industry analyst Charles Grom, during an interview with CNBC. "They do their best comp relative to Macy’s and Kohl’s in over two years, but I think they promoted their way to get there, I think they bought their comp a little bit."

Grom expects that if retailers are struggling to get consumers into their stores, they will need to offer more discounts and other promotions, and that will weigh on margins.

A holiday forecast out from NPD Group Thursday said consumers will be spending about the same this holiday season as they did last year.

NPD analyst Marshall Cohen—the man who talked last year about "frugal fatigue"—is now coining the phrase "calucated consumption."

The results of NPD's survey reinforces this: 62 percent of the respondents said they would do some kind of homework before making a purchase, 44 percent plan to comparison shop, 37 percent plan to refer to ads or circulars to research prices, and 33 percent will compare prices online before buying.

What's more, 60 percent of consumers told NPD that price will be the primary driver of their decision, while "special prices" came in second at 58 percent.

The key will be for retailers to come up with clever promotions and tempting products to coax consumers into buying more than they had planned.

This means there may be some out-of-the-box thinking for this holiday season, according to Mike Moriarty, a partner in the retail practice at A.T. Kearney.

For example, retailers may be taking the idea of a "pop-up" store on the road, with mobile shops that go to where the customers are. This is somewhat similar to what Target attempted last year when it set up a temporary gift store on in New York City.

Also, retailers are already promoting their layaway plans, which are useful tools for consumers who are more cash-constrained.

There is a desire to spend. Kantar Retail's monthly ShopperScape survey showed an increase in the number of shoppers planning to spend more in the coming month compared with the same period a year ago. This was the first time the survey registered a gain since May.

But Badillo noted that those who expected to spend more were more affluent than those answering that they would spend the same or less.

Badillo is seeing a real separating between what his group calls an "up-market shopper" and those who are labeled a "down-market shopper." Trends and attitudes for the "down-market," or lower-income consumer have held steady, while the up-market consumer is feeling more upbeat.

That showed itself in the September sales results, with luxury department stores Nieman Marcus, Saks and JW Nordstrom posting strong gains.

Gains were also strong in the teen apparel sector, which Thomson Reuters analyst Jharonne Martis said is a good barometer of discretionary spending. For September, this group crushed its 0.5 percent estimate, instead delivery a 6.7 percent increase in year-over-year same-store sales. This was the group's strongest result since April 2008's 8.6 percent growth.

But sales typically slow in October, as consumers take a break before the holidays.

A.T. Kearney's Moriarty is optimistic about the holiday season, but he doesn't expect to see any "big spikes" in spending.

"Black Friday is going to be a 'black week,'" Moriarty said, adding that he expects a "steadier, more even purchase pattern" during the holidays.

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