I am always suspicious of early holiday season reports of glowing sales around Thanksgiving and especially Black Friday. Then, right after Christmas I always wonder if retailers lowball estimates so they can beat-the-street on same-store-sales reports.
The 2012 holiday season may have been the worst for retailers since the financial crisis, with sales growth far below expectations, forcing many to offer massive post-Christmas discounts in hopes of shedding excess inventory.
While chains like Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Gap Inc are thought to have done well, analysts expect much less from the likes of Barnes & Noble Inc and J. C. Penney Co.
The latest sign of trouble came from MasterCard Advisors Spending Pulse, which reported holiday-related sales rose 0.7 percent from October 28 through December 24, compared with a 2 percent increase last year.
The estimates are still preliminary and focus on sales, not profits. A handful of retailers will post sales data next week, but most, including heavyweights like Wal-Mart, will not report results at the register until they release financial results in mid-February.
Analysts and industry groups already expected sales to grow at a slower pace than in 2011 and 2010. The National Retail Federation predicted 4.l percent sales growth, versus a 5.6 percent increase a year earlier.
But growth of less than 1 percent is weaker than even some of the most pessimistic forecasts.
One concern for retailers is that weak sales will mean an excess of inventory that will force some to slash prices.
Among other brands, Barnes & Noble offered 50 percent discounts in stores via email promotions on Wednesday, while Ann Inc had half-off at its Loft stores, and Bloomingdale's promoted discounts of up to 75 percent in some cases.
"Retailers are no longer chasing sales, they are chasing inventory management. That means the discounts that they would have liked to be at 50-60 (percent) off have climbed to 75 to even 80 (percent) off," said Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group.
Erica Ayala, 31, a mother of four who lives in New York's Harlem neighborhood, waited until the day after Christmas to shop for that very reason, saving more than $150 on kids' clothes alone at Gap's Old Navy chain.
"You can't go wrong with that," she said.
Live Well Within Your Means
You can never go wrong by living well within your means.
And with the unemployment rate massively understating the true state of affairs, "within your means" is a lot lower than the predicted 4.1% growth right after Thanksgiving.
Indeed, I suspect sales growth would have been negative if everyone shopped in a common-sense manner, ignoring the Fiscal Cliff Jackasses who wanted everyone to spend more and blamed Congress for the poor holiday sales.
My comment on Saturday still stands...
As far as I am concerned, people spending less for Christmas is a side "benefit" of the fiscal cliff. The Government needs to tighten its budget and consumers do as well.
Consumers cutting back spending is a good thing. In the next set of retail reports, we will get a better idea how much consumers really cut back.
The Treasury on Wednesday announced the first of a series of measures that should push back the day when the government will exceed its legal borrowing authority as imposed by Congress by around two months.
Without any action, Treasury said the government is set to reach its $16.4 trillion debt ceiling on December 31.
To cut government spending and delay bumping up against the debt ceiling, the Treasury will suspend issuance of state and local government series securities -- known as "slugs" -- beginning on December 28.
Investments in a government employee pension fund will also be suspended, along with some other measures, although Treasury did not give dates for when these other measures will begin.
"These extraordinary measures ... can create approximately $200 billion in headroom under the debt limit," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wrote in a letter to congressional leaders.
Normally, these measures would buy the Treasury about two months time before hitting the debt ceiling, Geithner said in the letter. But a series of planned tax hikes and spending cuts due to take effect in early January could give Treasury further time if they take effect as scheduled, he said.
True Fiscal Cliff
The true Fiscal Cliff is years down the road and will be similar to the crisis about to hit Japan in 2013 or 2014. The way to address the problem is to balance the budget, exactly the opposite of what Obama and nearly everyone in Congress other than Ron Paul and Rand Paul want to do.
The term "Fiscal Cliff" as currently used is simply preposterous. The ultimate irony is the alleged "Fiscal Cliff" happens to be the most fiscally responsible plan currently under discussion.