The latest weekly chain store sales data, reported Tuesday, were unimpressive in my estimation. However, I expect that bodes well for Black Friday shopping activity, and for certain retailers in particular.
Heading into Black Friday, the state of shopping activity has been weak if not meek even. Year-to-year rates of activity have been barely edging out inflation. The latest data out of the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) had the year-to-year pace up 2.5% for the week ending November 17, but some of those gains were due to Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, with blockbuster business occurring in Northeast locations of Home Depot (HD) and Lowe's (LOW) stores. We recommended those names, especially Lowe's, just after the storm's passing. After a Nor'easter struck just a week later, storm shocked residents of the highly populated region have certainly continued to stock up on emergency goods from Wal-Mart (WMT) and other big box stores so as to better prepare for the next big one.
Redbook also reports on year-over-year sales rates weekly, and had the same period pegged at an inflation trailing pace of 1.8%. Indeed, when looking past the storm skewed data, this is the result we find. American consumers have slowed their spending, and where they haven't slowed it, they've shifted it to better value, or discount stores like Wal-Mart and Costco (COST), deep discount stores like Dollar Tree (DLTR), and bargain pushing web retailers like Amazon.com (AMZN) and eBay (EBAY).
Some might interpret the dragging rates of recent sales as a bad omen for the holiday shopping season. However, the promotional period, and especially its high profile Black Friday, should draw enormous numbers of shoppers this year because of it. In fact, I believe the soft rates of sales leading into the season are a positive indicator of what will happen on Black Friday. Bargain seekers will be out in force to get the best deals on the gifts they are compelled to buy for relatives and friends sometime before December 25th; so it might as well be Black Friday. The drop-off of activity leading into the sales season may simply be indicative of shoppers waiting for their big bargain opportunity.
Discounters like Dollar Tree have outperformed most department stores and specialty retailers over the last several years, which has led some stalwarts like Macy's (M) and J.C. Penney (JCP) to strike out on strategic initiatives to save share. The results have been mixed, without a doubt. The retail issues have been the result of the condition of the economy, with such long lasting excessive unemployment rates and underemployment realities. I've suggested that recent increases in consumer confidence indices have been superficial and questionable, and I believe those will fade if the fiscal cliff solution is not satisfactory for most Americans. I expect the fiscal cliff issue has damaged the economy already, and continues to do so with each passing day without an effective resolution.
In conclusion, I suggest investors take the latest slow rates of chain store sales as indicative of a positive result for Black Friday retailers, as long as those retailers effectively promote attractive sales and deals. The failsafe sellers will be those iconic brands shoppers have come to know as the deal-makers, including your Wal-Marts, Costco's, eBays and Amazons of the space.