Customer Growth Partners Forecasts Humbug Holiday Sales, With Anemic 2.9% Retail Growth

By Craig Johnson, president, Customer Growth Partners

Continuing a two-year slide in retail spending momentum, American consumers will generate only a lackluster 2.9% year-over-year increase in holiday sales, the slowest pace since the recession, according to Customer Growth Partners’ 13th Annual Holiday Forecast. Retail sales for the November-December Holiday period will reach $575 billion — a new record, but the anemic 2.9% growth represents further slowing from the robust Holiday 5.1% pace in 2011 and 3.8% last year. [ CGP’s Holiday forecast is based on DOC/Census definitions, excludes autos/auto Parts, gasoline/oil, and restaurants; unlike some forecasts, e-commerce sales are included.]

Contrary to conventional wisdom, most shoppers are tuning out the noise coming from Washington, and are continuing to spend at the same pace as prior to the government shutdown. Unfortunately, the pace of retail spending was sluggish well before the partial shutdown, and remains so now.  

CGP maintains a 15-member nationwide field team that conducts primary research and detailed store checks in over 50 major shopping venues.  Based on findings from the back-to-school season and now through most of October, there has been no significant impact on retail sales — which were already stagnant, reflecting an apparel-focused slowdown after the 4th of July, and a further step down after Labor Day, affecting all categories, including big ticket items. In the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area, store raw traffic levels edged down in the first half of October, but the number and size of transactions showed no significant change. Only a few company standouts bucked the retail downdraft, such as Apple with its sell-out iPhone 5s model.

The key drivers behind the retail weakness are lagging income growth, and the declining share of the population with full-time jobs. The most recent government data show that real disposable personal income has been rising only an abysmal 0.7%, in contrast to growth rates of about 3.7% in the mid-2000s, when the Retail industry enjoyed its healthiest growth of this new century.  

Relatedly, barely 47.5% of the working age population now holds a full-time job, the lowest in decades, and down from 54% as recently as 2006. In addition to depressing overall retail expenditures, the shift to a ‘part-time economy’ has caused spending to rotate from discretionary categories to non-discretionary goods. Households with full-time jobs spend against both needs and wants — but consumers with part-time jobs spend only against needs.

Other key findings of CGP’s annual Holiday forecast include:

  • E-commerce/Direct-to-consumer sales are decelerating, after two decades of double-digit growth, to just under 10% at Holiday 2013 — but will comprise 15% of total sales;
  • Among merchandise categories, home improvement sector sales will outpace other sectors with growth of 4.1% YOY, reflecting the housing recovery — but slower than the 10% pace earlier in the year, mirroring the current pause in the housing rebound;
  • Apparel sales will lag the already sluggish growth levels, with YOY growth of only 2.6%, down from 4.2% holiday growth last year; and
  • Consumer electronics and appliances will be weak, with growth under 1%, despite the new generation of tablets, smartphones and videogame consoles — due to the weakness in big-ticket purchases, rampant TV price compression, and cannibalization of laptops, digital cameras and other products resulting from the growth of tablets and phones.

In short, consumers — at least those with full-time jobs — will still do their Christmas shopping this year, but at a smaller and slower pace than the last few years.  For retailers, particularly those dependent on solid discretionary spending, however, this will be a ‘Humbug Holiday’ — the worst since the recession — and more so for stores who placed their Holiday orders earlier in the year, when sales were still healthy.

Holiday 2013 will mark the first time that retailers see an actual decline in store productivity per square foot since the recession, by about 1%. And, because of the steep promotional pace this year, earnings will be weak, leading to a decline in “TOP” ratios, the true operating earnings generated per square foot, an even worse sign. The Grinch may not steal Christmas, but he may spoil it for a lot of retailers.”

Craig Johnson is president of Customer Growth Partners, a consulting and research firm serving the retail and other consumer industries. Johnson has 30 years of experience in market research and demand forecasting, has testified as an expert witness on forecasting and economic issues, has spoken and published worldwide on consumer trends, and appears frequently in the media. CGP’s 15-member field team conducts primary research weekly in over 50 major shopping venues coast to coast.


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