After-Christmas Sales Could Badly Damage Retailers

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Whatever many retailers made in profits over the holiday season might wash away with after-Christmas sales. USA Today has made the point that discounts seem greater than usual. The newspaper’s evidence appears strong.

Several retailers should hold profits, even with late holiday discounts. Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) should post huge revenue growth and net income, if the e-commerce firm has not undermined margins with free-shipping costs. Higher margin retailers that cater to the middle class, like Macy’s Inc. (NYSE: M), should have built good enough margins to keep them relatively high as they bring in people who shop between Christmas and the end of the year.

Much less certain are the fates of retailers who needed to make money this year. The Sears and Kmart units of Sears Holdings Corp. (NASDAQ: SHLD) sit at the top of that list, along with J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (NYSE: JCP). Each faces the vexing problem of how to drag in customers and liquidate inventory not sold in November and December. Investors have not shown optimism. J.C. Penney stock sold off from more than $10 nearly a month ago to as low as $8 recently. Shares of Sears Holdings have dropped more than 25% during the past month.

The two battered retailers can either show that they posted improved sales over month, as well as can boast balance sheets without inventory hangovers, or they can hope to show goods earnings, based to some extent on discipline over prices. Neither can do both. Their record with attracting store traffic has historically been too poor to allow them to avoid sharp prices cuts as a means to draw shoppers.

J.C. Penney and Sears needed a strong holiday season nationwide to help lift their sales. And each needs post-Christmas sales, and prices, to be strong as well. The given evidence shows neither happened. The weakest retailer probably will not recover due to better-than-expected holiday spending.

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