In 2009 as in 2008, the nation's retailers are banking on a robust November and December to salvage an exceptionally dismal year. This year, like last, questions emerge about the willingness of the American consumer to spend during this critical period.
Who will make it, and will consumers come to the rescue?
Whatever forecasters say for this holiday period, consumers continue to highly scrutinize their buying decisions. We need to get used to it. For retailers, the net effect is that those who've invested in the consumer through relationship marketing for the past 18 months will reap the benefit, in spite of decreased spending.
What a difference a year makes
At this moment last year, with the nation reeling in the fresh aftermath of the economy's near-collapse, all indicators were pointing downwards. Third quarter retail sales fell in the third quarter of 2008 faster than analysts predicted, and consumer spending hit its lowest point since 1980. Fear and uncertainty were driving expectations for the 2008 holiday season. It was not a good time.
This year, however, optimism has been creeping back into the bigger picture. Fragile, guarded and based on a things-are-getting-less-bad mentality, but it is optimism nonetheless.
And this optimism is justified. September's retail sales figures, which included the back-to-school period -- usually a bellwether for holiday sales-- declined, but at a substantially slower rate than expected (retail sales excluding autos fell just 4.9% Y-O-Y in September, whereas analysts predicted a 6.3% drop). Core retail sales actually posted a gain over the August figures, growing by less than 1%.
Consider these numbers from a Deloitte study released recently:
• During the 2008 holiday sales season, retail sales dropped 2.8% from the year before, to $447.5 billion.
• 2009 holiday retail sales are projected to be $437.6 billion, a decline of just 1%.
• Consumers plan to purchase 5.4 gift cards this year (the #1 gift, with more than 60% of consumers planning to buy), versus 5.3 cards last year.
• Consumers are, on average, 21% less worried this year about higher food and energy prices, stock market volatility and the general state of the economy in terms of their holiday purchasing decisions. They are, however, more worried about job loss (35% are concerned about job loss or pay reduction this year, versus 17% last year).
A survey released by the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs found that chain store sales actually increased by 2.4% over last year for the last week in October, and a recent forecast by ShopperTrak predicted a 1.6% increase in holiday retail sales. So that's good news, right?
Consumers Rule, Really
The drivers of these fairly positive early projections -- and really the optimism this holiday retail season -- are consumers. Consumer sentiment, sinking at this time in 2008, is on the definite upswing. Deloitte research found more than half (51%) of American consumers are planning to spend the same or more on the holidays this year, compared to 41% at this time last year.
So if the overall picture is just good enough to be less gloomy than last year, a few bright spots are lighting up the way. Online sales are projected to increase a full 8% over last year, according to Forrester Research, and mobile devices will be used more extensively during the shopping process this year than in any other.
The Deloitte study also indicated that nearly 1 in 5 consumers plan to use their mobile phones while shopping to find store locations, obtain coupons and sales information, and research products and prices. In the 18 to 29 age group, 4 out of 10 (39 percent) plan to use their mobile phone for holiday shopping.
There Is Hope On The Horizon
But some words of warning. Despite the creeping optimism, this holiday season will most likely be a gut-check for many retailers across the country. For the innovators in the industry, it will be a test -- and perhaps a vindication -- of forward-thinking marketing strategies, be it mobile, social media, digital or behavioral.
This holiday season will be a catalyst for rethinking traditional marketing tactics, and a reinforcement of the importance of developing solid consumer relationships. Unlike the boom years of this decade, any increase in overall sales will not be enough to buoy every retailer. Recessions have a way of weeding out those whose time is up.
But for the retailers that have worked the hardest, and use every marketing tool at their disposal, they'll be the ones with the greatest opportunity to distinguish themselves this holiday season - and next.