Retailers anxious to salvage slow season
Duane Marsteller/The Tennessean
Retailers hope today begins a strong post-Christmas rush that puts a positive end on an otherwise lackluster holiday selling season.
Retail sales in November and December so far have fallen short of initial expectations, despite a strong Black Friday start, reduced discounting and an extra weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas, analysts said. As a result, post-holiday shoppers can expect retailers to slash prices, relax return policies and welcome gift cards in a bid to salvage the season.
The post-holiday period “will be more critical than usual this year because it’s not turning out to be as good a season as everyone had hoped,” retail analyst Jeff Green said.
Analysts say mild winter weather, consumer uncertainty about the “fiscal cliff” and the impacts of Hurricane Sandy and the Newtown, Conn., school massacre have dampened holiday spending.
ShopperTrak said foot traffic and sales at the 40,000 U.S. retail locations it monitors were below year-ago levels in the first half of December. As a result, the firm cut its November-December sales forecast from a 3.3 percent gain to 2.5 percent.
Another firm, Retail Metrics, said it now expects December same-store sales to rise 4 percent from a year ago, down from an earlier prediction of 4.2 percent.
Two trade associations are holding firm to their original projections, however. The National Retail Federation still believes holiday sales will rise 4.1 percent, to $586.1 billion this year, while the International Council of Shopping Centers expects a 3 percent gain. Both anticipated a last-minute sales surge on Saturday and Sunday, the fifth and final weekend before Christmas.
But the post-Christmas period is taking on greater importance for retailers as well.
“Sales after Christmas Day are contributing more to the performance of the year than ever before,” said Richard Mellor, a vice president of the retail federation.
Dec. 26 sales totaled $7.1 billion last year, a 25-percent increase from the previous year, the federation said. ShopperTrak predicts today will be the seventh-biggest sales day of the year, behind only Black Friday and several weekend days leading up to Christmas.
Those sales will be driven by shoppers looking for bargains, exchanging unwanted gifts and redeeming gift cards.
Stores are expected to offer deep discounts on Christmas items, winter apparel and housewares, but bargain-hunters might be disappointed by this year’s selection as retailers kept a tighter rein on inventories, Green said.
“There won’t be a lot left over,” he said. “But prices on what’s left will be good because they (retailers) want to get rid of it by the first of the year.”
Also pressuring retailers is the prospect of more returns. For every dollar that stores take in this holiday season, it’s projected they will have to give back 10.7 cents in returns compared to 9.9 cents last year, according to an NRF survey.
But those making returns probably will find it easier this year: One in 10 retailers are relaxing their return policies, twice as many as in 2011, largely because of improvements in tracking sales transactions, Mellor said.
Among them is Toys R Us, which is waiving its 90-day return window during the two weeks following Christmas. “We know some of our customers do their shopping much earlier in the holiday season,” spokeswoman Katie Reczek said.
The toy retailer also softened its return policy on electronics and similar items, which previously were non-returnable. They now can be brought back within 45 days of purchase as long as they’re accompanied by a receipt and the original packaging, Reczek said.
But some retailers are tightening their return policies, especially for electronics — a favorite target of fraud, which is expected to cost retailers $2.9 billion this holiday season. Overall, retailers estimate 4.6 percent of holiday returns are fraudulent, the NRF said.
Target, for example, has reduced the return time for computers, game consoles, cameras and other electronics from 45 days to 30 days after purchase. It’s the second time in as many years it has tightened its time frame.
Sears also has shortened return times, from 90 days to 60 days, for many product categories.
Return policies for three Middle Tennessee-based retailers — Dollar General, Tractor Supply Co. and Genesco, owner of Journeys, Lids and Johnston & Murphy — are unchanged this year.
“It (return fraud) has not been a big issue for us because we serve a very honest customer base, so we’re not a target,” Tractor Supply spokesman Randy Guiler said.