Submitted by Jeffrey Snider – Alhambra Investment Partners
The initial estimates for Black Friday spending are pretty grim; you can make that interpretation based only on the press releases themselves as neither of the words “strong” or “robust” appear in them. According to ShopperTrak, actual sales (mall sales) on Black Friday itself were up almost 15% from last year but only because there was a clear revulsion against shopping on Thanksgiving Day. By their estimates, shopping the day of the holiday totaled almost $3.2 billion in 2014, which was up sharply from just $880 million on Thanksgiving Day 2012, but plunged to just $1.8 billion this year.
By quick count of that math, overall spending combined for the two “Black” shopping days was down about seven tenths of a percent – but it will likely be a larger decline than that as ShopperTrak has changed its estimation methodology turning direct comparisons against prior released data to somewhat of a discontinuity.
The figures from the National Retail Federation are far, far worse. Their total for average spending per adult, which ranges far beyond the malls, for the entire weekend was down sharply. Reported to be $380 in 2014, the initial estimates for 2015 are less than $320! That is more than 21% below the $407 in average spending estimated for Black Friday weekend in 2013. Online shopping estimates have not yet been reported, but several ancillary indications point to largely the same trends as last year (which is not good).
That leaves most analysis open to a lot of subjectivity; for those that are predisposed toward the dominant recovery narrative, this is just confirmation that Black Friday is no longer the singular event it was once. Thus, what is clearly troublesome can be framed as, somehow, “strong” even though the retail tradegroups themselves are clearlyavoiding that coloration.
Sales at U.S. brick-and-mortar stores on Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday were down slightly from last year, but the performance was still seen as strong in a holiday shopping season where discounts spread well beyond the weekend and many shoppers moved to the web.
Cannibalizing discounts are the last indicator that would suggest a grand consumer resurgence (just in time, too). By any rational count, that shoppers are taking advantage of discounts earlier and earlier (at the expense of Black Friday surroundings) completes instead the picture of distress. That is actually the word being passed by the retail sector itself, as it struggles under these “robust” conditions:
This year, mall discounts on Black Friday were not as hefty, the store hours were shorter and the crowds were smaller than in previous years. Fewer stores were even open on Thanksgiving Day as retailers such as all TJX stores, Nordstrom and Sam’s Club decided to stay closed so employees could be with their families. However, some opened earlier on Black Friday…
And although it might seem like those cash registers are ringing, retailers keep warning us about holiday earnings. We’ve received more negative guidance since the beginning of November. Three weeks ago, we had 12 negative guidance vs. 40 today.
On the revenue side, according to Thomson Reuters, there were nine negative guidance reports on November 11 and twenty-one now! Given the inventory extremes that greeted the shopping season, it is becoming clear that retailers aren’t looking at “changing consumer preferences” as a positive factor but instead lost hope to ignite some kind of driven consumer opportunity. I think, ultimately, that is what the reduction in Thanksgiving Day spending is telling us; that retailers in the past few years were experimenting, trying something to boost overall holiday spending but instead finding themselves only rearranging the deck chairs.
Undoubtedly the diminishing distinctiveness of Black Friday is occurring, as holiday shopping moves elsewhere in the calendar. But that doesn’t suggest the consumer rebirth, but rather the ongoing difficulties that aren’t supposed to occur where incomes, jobs and Yellen’s rhetoric are all rising if not soaring. Businesses, retail in particular, have followed those sentiments in holding product as inventory, but are in danger of being yet again disappointed by something greater than consumer fickleness.
It is at least curious that Black Friday behavior started this shifting trend mostly with last year’s awful holiday sales environment. Further, this downward “drift” has been accomplished still without the worst elements of actual recessionary tendencies; job growth has certainly slowed but it, like production levels, has not given over to the outright and outsized reductions that typically accompany such straining imbalances (including those financial). If retailers were hoping that consumers would spend bothbefore and during Black Friday weekend, they are once again left far short of the rhetorical recovery. Unlike last year, however, “transitory” has now been fully tested.