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As Last Minute Approaches, Retailers See an Uneven Holiday Season

Consumer confidence in the U.S. improved in December, but that seemed to do little to boost spending on a tepid Super Saturday.

The Conference Board said its Consumer Confidence Index rose to 115.8 from 111.9 last month, following an upward revision from 109.5. Despite the emergence of the Omicron variant, which likely became more concerning after this survey was taken, consumers appeared more optimistic about their job prospects for both their current expectations and six-months out.

While foot traffic at the malls on the big holiday shopping days suggest that consumers weren’t buying as much compared to 2019’s pre-pandemic levels. Foot traffic analytics firms Placer.ai said its data indicates that Super Saturday shopping wasn’t too rosy for many retailers. Visits were down for many and gaps in visits compared to 2019 were “actually bigger than those seen on Black Friday.” At Target, visits were down 3.1 percent on Black Friday versus the same day in 2019, but that gap increased to 6.5 percent on Super Saturday. At Walmart, visits were up 2.8 percent on Black Friday, but down 11.5 percent on Super Saturday. Much of this decline is attributed to consumers shopping earlier this year.

Placer.ai said that mall visits were up 35.3 percent at indoor malls and 18.3 percent at outdoor malls versus last year, but down 7.9 percent and 9.1 percent, respectively, when compared to 2019 levels. The bright spot was discount dollar stores where Family Dollar saw an 11.3 percent spike in visits when compared to 2019 levels, while Dollar General saw a whopping 18.4 percent spike.

“The declines were not confined to these retail giants. Many leading department store brands, off-price retailers, and even beauty retailers all saw either smaller gains or increased traffic declines on Super Saturday when compared to Black Friday differences,” Ethan Chernofsy, vice president of marketing at Placer.ai, said.

Chernofsky believes that the spike in Covid cases due to the Omicron variant might have played a role in the shortfall in foot traffic. Even though traffic was down on certain days, retailers such as Target and Walmart saw increases on other shopping days in the first 17 days of December. That data point led Chernofsky to conclude that “consumers were looking to spread their visits out to avoid major shopping days.” He added that incentives from retailers to get consumers to begin their holiday shopping earlier also played a role in lower visits.

In a Cowen & Co. spotlight on weekly traffic trends, the retail research team noted that U.S. retail traffic for the week beginning Dec. 13 was down 30.5 percent from 2019 traffic levels. U.S. apparel traffic was down 28.1 percent in the same period. And it wasn’t the weather keeping shoppers indoors as temperatures were 8.6 degrees warmer than last year, as well as up 8.3 degrees above normal.

Given those trends, the Cowen team forecasted U.S. retail traffic to be in the range of 70 percent to 75 percent of 2019 traffic levels in the final week leading to Christmas Day. With predictions that weather will be warmer than last year and the driest in 30-plus years for the U.S. as a whole, according to Weather Trends International, the research team concluded that the higher temperatures will be a “negative” for cold weather categories. Those expectations don’t bode for retailers hoping for a robust last day of shopping on Friday from consumers waiting until the final deadline to make their gift selections.

That’s not to say Holiday 2021 is going to be a bust. On the contrary, sales in general are better than last year, but the bar was set very low due to the pandemic in 2020 and that gave rise to easy comparisons for this year. What has helped retailers has been the surge in brick-and-mortar shopping once local economies opened up at the start of 2021. A rollout of vaccines also provided a comfort level not seen during the pandemic’s early days. Retailers were the beneficiaries of a healthy rise in gross margins, mostly because consumer demand rose and there was less available for purchase due to supply chain disruptions. That loop allowed retailers to sell through most items either at or near full-price, which little left on the clearance racks.

And while shoppers waiting until the last minute may not find many deals, that probably won’t be a problem for retailers as many already began tallying up holiday sales as early as October. Some retailers such as Target Corp. began early promotions before Halloween. And those shoppers pulled sales out of the November and December tally into October, according to Jack Kleinhenz, the National Retail Federation’s chief economist. Before Thanksgiving rolled around, word was out that shortages could be on the rise so consumers better buy early for the best selection. That prompted Kleinhenz to note that it could be a “stellar season” if retailers can “keep merchandise on their shelves.” He made those comments at the retail industry trade group’s press conference in October where it disclosed that holiday retail sales were projected to grow 8.5 percent to 10.5 percent.

And that pulling forward of sales could be one reason why selling in the usual holiday period seemed somewhat lackluster when compared over a two-year stacked period.

 

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