Poor Holiday Weekend Shopping Results Put Pressure on J.C. Penney and Sears

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J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (NYSE: JCP) has to have a spectacular record for the 2013 holiday shopping season. So do the Sears and Kmart divisions of Sears Holdings Corp. (NASDAQ: SHLD). Data on consumer activity over the Thanksgiving weekend detailed weak results. The weakest retailers almost certainly will be victims.

Although shoppers were out in force, what consumers spent per person dropped a great deal. According to the National Retail Federation:

More than 141 million unique shoppers have already or will have shopped by the end of the big Thanksgiving weekend, up from 139 million over the same time frame last year.

However:

Low prices helped keep Americans’ budgets in check this weekend: on average, shoppers spent $407.02 from Thursday through Sunday (planned), down from $423.55 last year.

The American consumer continues to be pinched, perhaps by the trend of flat discretionary income, the level of money that has to be spent on essentials like housing and cars, or most likely worry about job security in a period in which national unemployment remains high by historical standards.

It is safe to say that the retailers with the largest networks of stores, the most robust marketing budgets and ironclad balance sheets can power their ways through holiday sales that are flat to down. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT) needs to worry about investor reaction if its numbers are subpar, but it has the financial leverage to do as well as most other retailers in overall results. Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) is already considered a winner in terms of holiday sales, if for no other reason than there is no evidence against the fact that its revenue increase rate still runs about 20% compared to 2012.

J.C. Penney, Sears and Kmart are desperate. With aged stores, years of consumer dissatisfaction with their merchandising programs and marketing budgets restricted by low corporate cash balances, each certainly needs strong holiday sales across the entire industry to arrest the same-store sales plunges posted over the past several years.

Research increasingly shows that holiday sales are a zero-sum game. That means there will be big losers as all retailers fight for revenue in a difficult market. It is hard to see how the weak can trump the robust when the robust have so many advantages.

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