Will Holiday Retail Sales Really Be That Good?

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The National Retail Federation (NRF) on Thursday released its sales estimate for the 2019 holiday season. The retail industry association expects a year-over-year increase of 3.8% to 4.2% in holiday retail sales, slightly better than the five-year average of 3.7% annual growth.

2019 sales are forecast to range from $727.9 billion to $730.7 billion for the November-December season. The NRF does not include auto, gasoline or restaurant sales in its estimate.

Online and other non-store sales are tabbed to rise by 11% to 14% this year, to a range of $162.6 billion to $166.9 billion. The total for 2018 was $146.5 billion.

NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay commented:

The U.S. economy is continuing to grow and consumer spending is still the primary engine behind that growth. Nonetheless, there has clearly been a slowdown brought on by considerable uncertainty around issues including trade, interest rates, global risk factors and political rhetoric.  Consumers are in good financial shape and retailers expect a strong holiday season.

Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz added:

There is significant economic unease, but current economic data and the recent momentum of the economy show that we can expect a much stronger holiday season than last year. Job growth and higher wages mean there’s more money in families’ pockets, so we see both the willingness and ability to spend this holiday season.

The impact of new tariffs that went into effect on September 1, or that are set to go into effect on December 15, “remains to be seen,” the NRF said. That’s not exactly sticking its neck out.

Retail industry analysts at Coresight Research report that six in 10 U.S. holiday shoppers are worried that tariffs will lift prices on holiday items. Coresight expects 2019 holiday season sales to increase by 4%.

The calendar throws up another obstacle this year. The period between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day is the shortest possible and six days less than the 2018 period. Even so, year-over-year growth in 2018 was accompanied by a federal government shutdown and a tumbling stock market. Neither is expected this year, and that should help offset the calendar issue.

Coresight, however, notes that holiday sales play a smaller role in annual retail sales than they did in the late 1990s when retailers made nearly a quarter of their annual sales during the holiday season. Last year, holiday sales accounted for about 21% of annual sales.

Holiday season sales are also being pulled forward as consumers take advantage of online retailers’ discounted goods all year long. Coresight expects 23% of all holiday season sales this year will be made online, a 2% year-over-year increase.

Both the NRF and Coresight estimates are lower than the estimates from some by top consulting firms. Deloitte, for example, expects holiday season sales to rise by 4.5% to 5.0% this year to more than $1.1 trillion. Consulting firm AlixPartners has forecast holiday season sales growth of 4.4% to 5.3%, according to a report at CNBC.

Low unemployment, solid consumer confidence and rising wages should overcome tariff worries, trade concerns and the other macroeconomic and political factors that are in play this year. Joel Bines of AlixPartners told CNBC, “These are uncharted waters … .”

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