‘Lackluster’ Holiday Sales Cast a Pall Over U.S. Retail Sector

(Bloomberg) -- What a difference a year makes.

U.S. retailers have gone from peak Christmas to weak Christmas, judging from “lackluster” results released Tuesday by data tracker NPD Group. Sales of key gift categories rose just 0.2% between Nov. 3 and Dec. 28 compared with the same period last year, NPD said, hurt by sluggish demand for apparel and toys in particular.

“Retailers did not have their typical robust peak season,” NPD’s chief industry adviser Marshal Cohen said. “It’s flat. You don’t want a flat peak, that’s like an oxymoron.”

Combined with feeble numbers from retailers like Kohl’s Corp., J.C. Penney Co., L Brands Inc. and Five Below Inc., it’s shaping up to be a December some retailers would rather not remember. NPD’s results stood in sharp contrast with those from Mastercard SpendingPulse, which earlier reported a 3.4% gain in sales over a similar time period, fueled by a 19% uptick in online revenue.

While some retailers blamed a shortened holiday-selling period for their declines -- there were six fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 2019 compared with 2018 -- investors won’t swallow such excuses.

‘Lackluster’ Holiday Sales Cast a Pall Over U.S. Retail Sector

Shares of Five Below, for example, plunged 11% Monday after it cut its profit forecast amid a falloff in comparable holiday sales. Another contributing factor was that retailers were boosted in 2018 by the demise of Toys R Us Inc. -- even Best Buy Co. had toys in its aisles -- but that benefit largely disappeared a year later. NPD’s Cohen also said consumers continue to migrate more toward experiences versus merchandise.

“Romantic gifts, ties, nobody bought that stuff,” he said.

The poor performance doesn’t bode well for the upcoming year. While unemployment is near record lows, U.S. consumer confidence unexpectedly dropped for the fourth time in five months in December, while wage growth remains tepid.

“One thing we are certain of is that the outlook seems much more uncertain,” Scott Mushkin, an analyst at R5 Capital, said in a note last week. The end of interest-rate cuts and this year’s presidential election are weighing on consumer demand, he said.

The industry’s star pupils have yet to post their holiday grades, however. Target Corp. reports sales Wednesday, while Walmart Inc. and Best Buy will update investors next month. Costco Wholesale Corp., meanwhile, remained impervious to the adverse conditions that are battering retailers, with its December sales trouncing estimates.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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