This coming Black Friday is scheduled to kick off the holiday season that either makes or breaks the majority of retailers. Some may anticipate a rousing success as stores such as Walmart (WMT) have even moved the big day up to Thanksgiving Thursday. However, retailers are still left in what is arguably a shaky environment in the wake of what remains elevated unemployment and looming tax uncertainty.
Now investors may be encouraged by reports coming out of major cities such as Tampa, FL that customers are already camping out in front of stores in hopes of getting a good deal. Still, browsing and buying remains two entirely different things.
No company last year did a better job of proving such a reality than Best Buy (BBY). From Black Friday to the end of the year, shares of the beleaguered retailer actually fell 7% and things don't appear to be getting any better this year. Reports on Monday that the company's website suffered an untimely crash due to high traffic was followed by an earnings report on Tuesday that missed estimates.
Another warning for the retail sector comes from the fourth quarter earnings expectations of Sears Holdings (SHLD). After posting EPS of $3.67 in the final quarter of 2010, the company projects EPS this time around of a mere $1.35. Assuming the retailer doesn't miss results like they did in the fourth quarter of 2011, that figure translates into at least a 73% drop in earnings.
Now in all fairness, companies such as Sears, Best Buy and even JC Penney's (JCP), which is also projected to post weaker fourth quarter results than last year, are surely not the highlights of the retail sector. Their struggles to either post solid earnings or deliver intriguing deals to customers has been well documented. However, even stalwarts such as Macy's (M), Walmart, Target (TGT) and Amazon (AMZN) need one thing that may not present itself this year. They need paying customers.
A recent survey of 1,000 people by Think Finance found that 45% of people would rather skip Christmas altogether due to the increased expenses and stress the season brings. The most alarming aspect of the poll was that it included people across all income levels and not just those suffering extreme economic difficulty.
This distaste of the holiday season and the expenses which it brings paints a very dark cloud over those retailers which have outperformed markets and their own sector this year. After all, Walmart, Macy's, Target and Amazon are up between 12% to 24% already this year.
Now although the possibility of upcoming tax increases provides the most noticeable burden on retailers in the coming month, it's not the only obstacle. Anemic wage growth has also left companies scurrying to embark on aggressive price-matching, a strategy which is almost guaranteed to put at least some dent in profits.
The latest retail sales figure for October was also troubling as it showed a slowdown in spending. According to the Commerce Department, sales dropped 0.3% in October. The drop itself couldn't be blamed on Sandy as the government reported the storm as having "both positive and negative effects" on sales. What's worse, the drop proved a significant contrast to the 1.2% increase in sales reported last October.
On the positive side for retailers, two of the sector's standouts in Walmart and Macy's are expecting fourth quarter EPS to be 10% to 15% higher than last year. However, with Walmart shrouded by a planned strike by some workers this week and Macy's trying to overcome a downgrade by Citigroup in June in which analysts predicted a slowdown in high-end consumer spending in the second half, the sector provides anything but a safe haven.
The same can be said in regards to Amazon. Although the website is known for its good deals and as a key leader of Cyber Monday, the company is projected to post fourth quarter earnings of only $0.28 or down from the $0.38 reported last year. With such results and shares up 25% year-to-date, further gains remain uncertain considering the stock significantly underperformed and fell 13% last December.
Equally disturbing for all retailers was a release by Moody's on Tuesday estimating holiday sales growth of only 4% despite the agency's affirmation that online spending would be strong. That number is also well below the 6.5% growth last year.
Now it's probably hard for investors to imagine retail stocks won't move higher on Friday or the upcoming month. Amidst all the uncertainty, they still may provide some gains. However, like the citizenry's opinion of Christmas, I'd rather just skip it.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.