May 28, 2018
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US holiday sales rise 3.5 percent on discounts, research firm reports

By Lindsey Rupp and Cotten Timberlake, Bloomberg

U.S. retail sales rose 3.5 percent during the holiday season this year, helped by deep discounts at malls and purchases of children’s apparel and jewelry, MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse said.

Sales of holiday-related categories, such as clothing, electronics and luxury goods, rose 2.3 percent from Nov. 1 through Dec. 24 compared with a year earlier, the Purchase, N.Y.-based research firm said Thursday. SpendingPulse tracks total U.S. sales at stores and online via all payment forms.

Falling store traffic in recent weeks and uneven demand, especially for apparel, spurred chains to risk earnings by pouring on the discounts to generate sales. Retailers including Gap Inc. were offering as much as 75 percent off and some, including Macy’s Inc. and Kohl’s Corp., were keeping stores open around the clock starting Dec. 20.

“You are seeing, ‘It’s OK for me to go out and spend,’ ” Sarah Quinlan, a senior vice president at MasterCard Advisors, said in a phone interview Thursday. “That being said, they are still being cautious, and they are picking their retailers. It is not hot 2006-2007 spending we are seeing.”

Sales were strongest in jewelry and children’s apparel, while sales of electronics and luxury items excluding jewelry were about the same as the same period last year, SpendingPulse said. Sales of women’s and men’s apparel fell from last year, the researcher said.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Retailing Index rose 0.4 percent at 10:50 a.m. in New York, compared with a 0.2 percent gain for the broader S&P 500. The 30-company retail index jumped 43 percent this year through Dec. 24.

The SpendingPulse data largely tracked researchers’ expectations for the holiday season. The National Retail Federation reiterated on Dec. 12 its prediction that total sales will rise 3.9 percent in November and December, more than the 3.5 percent gain a year ago. Chicago-based researcher ShopperTrak has said holiday purchases will rise 2.4 percent, the smallest gain since 2009.

The International Council of Shopping Centers said Dec. 24 that sales at retailers’ stores open at least a year climbed 2.7 percent in the week ending Dec. 21 from a year earlier. The New York-based trade group maintained its projection that retailers will report comparable-store sales increases of 3 percent to 4 percent for December when they issue their latest monthly reports.

U.S. store visits plummeted 21 percent and retail sales dropped 3.1 percent in the week through Dec. 21, data compiled by ShopperTrak showed Dec. 23.

Holiday purchases increased 2 percent from Nov. 1 to Dec. 22, Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak, said in a telephone interview Dec. 23. The firm compiles sales and traffic data from devices in stores and receipt information, primarily from mall- based sellers of general merchandise, apparel, furniture and electronics.

While the U.S. economy grew at a surprising 4.1 percent annualized rate in the third quarter, the gain was driven by increased spending on services such as health care and recreation as well as companies boosting software investments. Incomes increased 0.2 percent in November after dropping 0.1 percent the prior month. The Bloomberg survey median called for incomes to rise 0.5 percent last month.

As a result, the expansion has largely bypassed retailers such as Walmart Stores Inc., which last month trimmed its profit forecast as unemployment and higher taxes kept many customers from increasing spending. A week later, Target Corp. posted third-quarter profit that fell 46 percent and forecast fourth-quarter earnings that trailed some analysts’ estimates.

To capture shoppers’ attention, stores deepened discounts, promoting extra deals in the last days before the Christmas holiday. Gap’s Old Navy chain on Dec. 22 started offering as much as 75 percent off throughout the store. “The After Holiday Sale Starts Today,” the chain said in a full-page ad in The Washington Post.

The promotions were the most prevalent since 2008, Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners in New Canaan, Conn., said in an e-mail.

“It appears 50 percent off has been the price of entry this year,” Simeon Siegel, a New York-based analyst at Nomura, wrote in a note to clients Dec. 24. “Although there will be some holiday sales winners, very few will escape the discount- driven pressures on margin.”


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