Retail Strength: Sustained Demand Or Deal-Hunting?

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There has been a bit of debate as to how weak or strong the U.S. Consumer truly is. Considering that he/she has been acting as the backbone of the global economy, its an important question. So far this year, holiday spending has been mixed.

Perhaps we can blame the National Retail Federation for raising expectations too high. After Black Friday, they put out survey data which was misleading (it was not actual sales); Their report of an 18.9% sales gain was false, but it was dutifully and lazily reported by the media.

Based on the actual sales data -- and not mere surveys of spending intentions -- I've taken the position that the consumer is in the process of tiring, but not yet spent out. The drop in energy prices has helped a bit -- more psychological than actual jingle in pocket -- while the decline in Mortgage Equity Withdrawals is a net negative.

Retailers have been nervous, with deep discounting and a plethora of doorbuster items. The net result of these low margin/loss leader items has been pressure on margins and profits. Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) is the latest example of this.

Today's Ahead of the Tape column looks into the details:

"Because so much discretionary spending occurs this time of year, holiday sales are an important gauge of the mood of consumers. That casts today's report on November retail sales in an important light.

Economists estimate sales -- adjusted for seasonal swings -- rose by about 0.2% in November from October, and 0.3% excluding autos. That works out to year-over-year growth of a little more than 4% for both categories, which is pretty tepid. Strip out the volatile gas category, and retail sales look stronger.

For November, estimates are all over the map. The report is one of those volatile monthly statistics that's hard to gauge. It's especially tricky because consumers seem to be pushing hard for discounts. It's difficult to know if buying represents sustained demand or opportunistic deal-hunting."

Its safe to describe Retail Sales so far this season as "mixed." Econoday noted:

"Retail Sales slipped 0.2 percent in October, following a 0.8 percent drop in September but both months were pulled down by sharply lower gasoline prices. Excluding gas station sales, retail sales for October rose 0.4 percent, after a 0.4 percent increase in September. We can still expect some gasoline price weakness in November but will other components in retail sales show moderate strength?"

What is noteworthy about the drop in Gasoline prices is that consumers have not run out and spent it -- a surprisingly different tack then their prior behavior. Bloomberg's Caroline Baum acidly asked the question: Consumer Spending Is Holding Up? You Do the Math. She points out that this is a change in consumer behavior worth noting.

Retail Sales Data thru November, 2006

Graphic courtesy of Barron's, Haver Analytics


It is likely that Retail Sales rose in November. I imagine the execs at Best Buy are asking, "At what cost?"
Sustained demand or opportunistic deal-hunting" is the key question today. And an answer -- or at least, a partial, short term answer -- will be heard at 8:30 this morning.

Holiday Sales Watch
WSJ, December 13, 2006; Page C1

Consumer Spending Is Holding Up? You Do the Math
Caroline Baum
Bloomberg, Nov. 15 2006