Saturday, November 29, 2014

Retail Sales Expectations Should Be Held In Check

Reports from the local mall and surrounding stores started coming in around 6:00AM from my "shopping team" on the morning of Black Friday. They shocked even me, not only were the parking lots empty but many of the stores had more employees working than customers. This was something I felt was worth seeing first hand. My office is across from the second largest mall in my state so as I went into work an unplanned visit seemed in order. Foot traffic inside the mall was far less than I imagined, most of the shoppers were younger women and older girls. These are considered the "core" and most diehard of shoppers. Many were carrying few if any bags, this indicates little in the way of buying. Animal spirits in reaction to Black Friday were far less enthusiastic than in the past. The stores did fill as the day wore on.

Picture Taken In Mall 7:00 AM Black Friday!
Almost two years ago in a television interview on Bloomberg, Harvard economist Steven Roach put a retail sales consultant in her place who was crowing about strong retail growth.  Roach pointed out that after discounting for inflation growth in retail sales compared to past years is mostly an illusion. His statement remains true today. 

I walked the entire mall to get a feel for what was happening and stopped at Sears to see if any good buys existed in tools. I picked up a spare "'basic" circular saw that was on sale for $29.95. I have about ten of these but they tend to get dropped and banged around until they lose the ability to give a perfect cut. The girl at check out was standing there looking a bit bored so I joked about her waiting for me. With a smile she responded, "yes sir, that is my whole reason for being here" then and after the sale gave me a free wrench. The wrench retailed for about three and a half dollars costing Sears around eighty cents. I doubt if I added greatly to Sear's bottom-line. 

As usual we see clips and stories on the news of robust shopping, this includes scuffles in stores in the UK. In reality what happens in one store matters not, it is what is taking place in a majority of  this country's retail locations that will determine whether this Christmas season is a boom or a bust. We are repeatedly told by the media of America's changing buying habits, about the massive shift to online buying from a lazy public seeking convenience. Add to this stories about how the malls are dying and failing to attract shoppers who need a compelling draw to wow them and not just run of the mill goods and services. Personally, I think the shift in how people buy is all a bit more complicated than that.

I have written several articles about Amazon and how it is difficult to see how they have any fans when you consider how they abuse and exploit the brick and mortar stores that line streets throughout America. These are the stores that employ our family members, support little league teams in the community, and add value to our lives. These stores build or lease space, buy supplies from the other local businesses, and pay both sales and real-estate taxes. I was unhappy when Washington failed to force the collection of sales tax by online companies that was supported by real estate owners and most business owner because it gives online retailers an unfair advantage.

While Amazon sends out the signal that their customers are smart, forward thinking, and upscale they exploit America and have an evil side, this is a side we should and must recognize. What it saves consumers in money it may cost them many times over in damage to their local business community. Words like "evolving" are used to describe Amazon's business model, a better word might be undefined. A major key weakness is that new competition can now cheaply and easily replicate the most profitable parts of Amazon and cherry pick much of their future potential. The most profitable and best thing to sell online is lightweight expensive items. Soon it will be realized that its competition has hit Amazon head on in a game Amazon cannot win.

Could it be more is going on here? It is possible that a combination of many consumers simply being "tapped out" and with their closets full are finally learning to live with less and are unenthusiastic about buying more. As for online shopping we should remember some of the things that will effect their sales and bottom-line. Many of the poor lack a "good credit card" and as brick and mortar retailers cut prices to move merchandise companies like Amazon will be forced to do the same. This will squeeze margins and profits. Many of the big box stores have beefed up online sales and services with the advantage of allowing customer pick up and returns that companies dealing only with online cannot provide.  All in all expect this years retail sales to be ok at best to disappointing, and profits are likely to be the same or worse.

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