As I do every year, I arose this morning at a time that would have been considered uncivilized anywhere in the country, regardless of time zone. By a little after 3am I was chatting with folks lined up outside Kohl's. I followed that up with a trip to Wal-Mart for their 5am opening, then to Target for their 6am opening, and finally a walk through the mall for Macy's, JC Penney, Sears, Nordstrom and all the specialty stores.
Without further ado, this year's view from the battlefield:
- People are hurting financially and it's going to show in sales. 75% of shoppers interviewed are cutting back their spending for this holiday season significantly (anywhere from 30-90% cuts). Of the remaining 25%, most were just holding spending equal to last year, and the few who were spending more were generally in their 20s (no mortgage, little debt) and hadn't spent much last year.
- Consumers are shopping for what's on sale: just having items FOR sale isn't enough anymore. The days of paying whatever you have to just to make sure that a
is under the tree for the kids are just plain over. Most consumers were going to multiple stores to buy specific items in each location... and they were shopping fewer stores overall. This, by the way, defeats the purpose of doorbuster sales for the retailers, which are supposed to lure you in and get you to buy some non-discounted items also. The only exceptions to this rule were Wal-Mart shoppers. Wal-Mart management should be pleased to know that only one consumer interviewed in their line had any intention of going to another store after they were done at Wal-Mart. The 'save money, live better' message is resonating well with their consumers!
- Lines are longer than in previous years, but there is less in the baskets and everything in those baskets is pretty deeply discounted. I was asked by a reporter today if that meant bad margins for the stores, and the answer is only a 'maybe.' I know that JC Penney and other retailers have been trying to increase margins anyway they can, including buying items with discounting in mind. An example would be a retailer knowing that their consumer needs to buy jewelry at a certain price point, say $100. Just like last year, the retailer will have items at that price point, but the quality of the item will be lower this year, allowing them to maintain margins.
- There's no place like home. Once again, a lot more shoppers than I expected headed directly to the home departments at Kohl's, Macy's and JC Penney. Even though this stuff hasn't been selling well at full price, if you discount it they will buy.
- Most surprising trend? This year it had to be the lack of a must have item. Sure, parents were buying video games and DVDs for their kids. But only a few parents mentioned the Guitar Hero as something they had to have. GPS units, MP3 players, cheap flat screen TVs were all mentioned as desirable by shoppers... but virtually no one said they'd pay full price to get them.
- Most bags in the mall? This year it was a tie between Macy's and JC Penney, with Bath & Body Works getting special mention as the most prominent specialty retailer.
- The winner of the 'You Think This Stuff is Going to Sell Itself?' Award is Abercrombie & Fitch. Apparently the corporate motto is 'Discounts? We don't need no stinkin' discounts.' Unfortunately, based on the lack of traffic and sales in the store, I beg to differ.
- Biggest fall from favor award goes to Apple. I'm not saying they weren't selling anything, because I'm sure they were, but over the past few years the stores have been packed to overflow on Black Friday. Today? Not so much.
So, what do we do with all this information? I'm going to spend some time this weekend plowing through balance sheets, looking at corporate cash levels, and watching consumers. I firmly believe that today confirms that the holiday retail season is going to be as dismal as advertised, if not worse. I think there might be something to be said for shorting the retail index and pairing that with a long trade for a couple of high quality retail companies. Names to follow.