Holiday Retail Winners and Losers

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Rising employment and lower gasoline prices both pumped some life into this year’s holiday shopping season, but there are going to winners and losers when the dust finally settles. Black Friday was a good but not great sales day, and Super Saturday did not make up the slack. Retail industry firm ShopperTrak said that Super Saturday sales totaled $9.15 billion, well short of the firm’s forecast for sales of $10 billion.

The National Retail Federation has predicted a sales increase of 4.1% for this year, including both online and store sales. Retail industry analysts at Retail Metrics have forecast a same-store sales gain of 4.0%.

Promotional pricing on specialty women’s and teen apparel started early in the holiday shopping season. Retail Metrics noted that the “entry point in terms of catching consumers attention looked to be 40-50% off the entire store…” at retailers including Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (NYSE: ANF), Aeropostale Inc. (NYSE: ARO) and Gap Inc. (NYSE: GPS).

J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (NYSE: JCP) appeared to be busier than most specialty apparel stores, but traffic and sales followed promotional pricing — traffic and sales up as prices were marked down further. The store had said that it would issue a statement on Black Friday weekend sales, but that statement did not materialize, and a downgrade to Sell from Goldman Sachs has sent shares plunging nearly 15% so far in December.

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Discounts were particularly high in competitive consumer electronics gear where items such as Ultra HD TVs, smartphones and tablets were top sellers. How the discounting will affect Best Buy Co. Inc. (NYSE: BBY) remains to be seen, but Retail Metrics has a same-store sales gain in the fourth quarter of just 0.2%. That is better than the 1.3% decline in same-store sales posted in the fourth quarter a year ago, but still shaky.

Online sales were up 15% year-over-year a few days before Christmas and are projected to rise 16% year-over-year for the three months to December. Online sales on Christmas Day rose 8.3% this year, a good gain but less than half the 17% increase on Christmas Day in 2013. Because most major retailers sell direct to customers online, many add their online sales to their reported same-store sales numbers.

The summing up of this holiday season seems to be: store traffic up in department stores but down in specialty shops, consumer electronics were the hot item, discounts started big and got bigger, and online sales may have saved the day.

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