Posted by Dale Buss on September 6, 2011 03:37 PM
Whether they're whistling through the graveyard or just expressing a perennial sense of holiday optimism, retailers believe Americans will shed their economic malaise and spend with some energy at their stores during the Christmas shopping season. It'll be interesting to see if they hang on to their relatively optimistic prognostications until that season begins in earnest.
For now, at least, it seems that many retailers are hoping that the American economy goes back to the future, when everyone counted on the indomitable consumer to shop a sagging economy back into prosperity. Remember soon after 9/11? The fondest express desire of political leaders was that Americans try to compose themselves — and go shopping.
That sort of economic prescription seems to be coming back in vogue as the industry airs its hopes for the holiday shopping season. The International Council of Shopping Centers estimates that sales will rise 3.5 percent for November and December. Last year, sales rose by 4.4 percent during the same period, producing the best holiday results since 2006. Of course, in 2008 — the year that unfortunately most seems to match the current one — shoppers could only muster the worst year-to-year holiday-shopping bust in nearly a half-century.
Back-to-school retail sales for August were better than anticipated despite the turmoil in the economy at large. President Obama reportedly is aiming his new economic prescriptions largely at assisting the middle class, whose mood is determinant in the success of any shopping season. The New York Times cites the confidence of a handful of major retailers in launching new national marketing campaigns, including (troubled) Coldwater Creek and (rising) Uniqlo, as one reason for optimism about the season. Michael Dart, a retail strategist at consulting firm Kurt Salmon told the Los Angeles Times , "If we have a solid holiday season and there's a sense that the consumer is resilient ... I think you could get more bullish on hiring and it could start to move the unemployment rate."
But of course you could write a paper for a 300-level Logic course with all the conditional phrases in Dart's scenario. Meanwhile, there is at least as much room for pessimism. Toys R Us, for instance, has had great success the last few years with temporary Holiday Express "pop-up" stores just for the Christmas retailing season, but the world's largest toy retailer just announced that it plans to open fewer this year than last year, when it opened 600 temporary retail locations. Meanwhile, there is some apprehension about holiday sales even among some luxury retailers, such as Saks, which is keeping a tight rein on inventories leading up to the season.
Which type of consumer will win out, the Grinch or the Scrooge? Much of the nation's short-term economic prosperity depends on the answer.