'Tis the season to read holiday tea leaves, and three just-released forecasts predict that consumer spending will be lukewarm, at best.
At the low end, the International Council of Shopping Centers is looking for a 2.2% rise. And while the trade group points out that there are many components to such a forecast, the overall trend is tepid.
"No matter which metric of performance is used, ICSC projects 2011 U.S. holiday sales are likely to advance at a slower pace than in 2010 as strong economic headwinds continue to persist," says Michael P. Niemira, ICSC's chief economist, in its release. "The 2011 holiday season forecast also envisions a pace of sales considerably slower than during the first half of 2011 since retail sales generally advanced at a faster pace in early 2011 than during the 2010 holiday season."
Kantar Retail is expecting a slightly higher gain of 2.8%, or half of last year's 5.6% increase. Adjusted for inflation, that means a relatively flat holiday. But it also projects that things may actually head south: "If unit volume or inflation-adjusted growth turns negative for retail sales, it would likely coincide with a recession in the overall economy," notes Frank Badillo, senior economist for Kantar Retail, in its release.
"While the outlook is not negative for all retail sectors, it will be driven by the degree to which declining confidence affects spending decisions -- particularly for businesses." That would lead to less hiring, cramping people's income and causing them to spend less on the holiday, he says.
ShopperTrak, a Chicago-based company that monitors foot traffic, is more optimistic, calling for a 3% sales gain in November and December, despite a 2.2% decrease in foot traffic.
The company, which points out that holiday sales and traffic typically make up 20% of annual retail activity, says the expected gains in the Christmas shopping period would mark the 19th consecutive month of year-over-year U.S. retail sales growth.
Consumers are spending less time in stores, it says, because of high unemployment rates and gas prices -- with shoppers visiting an average of 3.10 stores per shopping trip so far this year, down from 3.19 per shopping trip in 2010. That's considerably lower than the four to five stores visited in early 2008, before the recession.
"The persistently high unemployment and fuel rates along with consumers' conservative purchasing attitudes will affect spending this holiday season more than in recent years," comments ShopperTrak co-founder Bill Martin in its release. "Every shopper in a store will be more valuable than last year, and retail stores should be ready to convert their holiday shoppers into sales."
It predicts a gain of 2.7% in apparel and 1.2% in electronics; overall, it anticipates higher-end stores to fare better than moderate or lower-priced stores.