Will Cyber Monday Offset Weak Holiday Shopping Start?

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A survey for the National Retail Federation (NRF) estimated that more than 141 million different shoppers hit the stores over the four-day Thanksgiving holiday. That is slightly more than the 139 million that hit the stores last year, but last year’s shoppers spent an average of $423.55, compared with an average of $407.02 this year, for a total of $57.4 billion in spending for the four-day weekend. Good, but not good enough.

The drop in spending is likely to be paired with a drop in margins. Low prices are the only thing that lure consumers, and retailers will be forced to offer low prices on popular items or risk having people vote with their feet (or their smartphones and tablets). The NRF’s forecast for sales growth of 3.9% to $602 billion for the full holiday shopping season is almost certainly too optimistic. The only question is by how much.

Online shopping appears to have performed very well, but it is wise to remember that online shopping still provides a quite small portion of sales from traditional brick-and-mortar retailers. An online sales estimate for Thanksgiving Day put total sales for the day at just over $1 billion and Black Friday online sales at just under $2 billion. Even if the rest of the weekend performed as well as Thanksgiving Day, we are still looking at just $5 billion in online sales, less than 10% of the NRF’s estimate of total weekend spending.

Cyber Monday is expected to be a bigger online sales day than Black Friday, with a forecast of about $2.27 billion.That would make it the biggest online spending day ever. Which stores will benefit the most?

Over the weekend, online sales rose the most at department stores like Macy’s Inc. (NYSE: M) and, if it is lucky, J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (NYSE: JCP), which could really use some good news on sales. A strong showing on Monday would indicate that the department stores finally may have figured out how to get buyers, not just browsers.

Sales of health and beauty goods and apparel also posted big gains in weekend online sales. For health and beauty items, websites at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT) and Walgreen Co. (NYSE: WAG) are likely destinations. Apparel seller Old Navy, a division of Gap Inc. (NYSE: GPS), posted very good gains online over the weekend, and the store might be able to leverage those gains, provided it sets prices at a level that consumers are willing to pay.

Of course the elephant in the room is Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN), which is using Cyber Monday as the kickoff to a full week of online sales. It is a virtual certainty that sales at Amazon will be huge this week, and because the company pays little attention to margins, traditional retailers have a very hard time competing.

Best Buy Co. Inc. (NYSE: BBY), with its price-matching guarantee and ultra-low pricing, may have the best chance to compete with Amazon for sales of electronic gear, but margins will surely suffer. Best Buy warned about this in its third-quarter earnings report, so it should come as no surprise.

J.C. Penney and fellow weakling Sears Holdings Corp. (NASDAQ: SHLD) may not be able to compete on price simply because they need to show a profit this quarter. And neither company has a customer base that is loyal enough to shop there if a lower price is available somewhere else. And there is always a lower price somewhere.

November’s retail same-store sales reports will be coming out on Thursday, and that should give us a little better idea of how the chains did over the holiday weekend. Research firm Retail Metrics expects November same-store sales to rise 2.8%, substantially below the 4% increase in October. For the full fourth quarter, same-store sales are expected to rise an anemic 1.1%.

For all the hoopla of the last week or so, the outlook for retailers this year is decidedly soft. Cyber Monday/Week will not turn that around.