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If it feels like summer just ended, that’s because it did: the first day of fall was Sept. 22. But you can bet your bottom dollar that retailers aren’t going to let a little thing like the calendar get in the way of moving forward with their holiday plans. In fact, if the recent spate of depressing economic news is any indicator, this year some brands might literally be betting their bottom dollar on the anticipated holiday sales boost. I feel like I say this every year, but it does seem as if retailers are rolling out their holiday paraphernalia and promotions earlier than ever. From Christmas ornaments to holiday marketing materials, the holiday shopping season is already making its presence known.
To me, this year is a bit different in some respects. The summer was a disappointment, and back-to-school numbers were underwhelming almost to the point of being alarming. I talked about this in more detail in my last column, but the fact that second quarter numbers were so weak almost across the board has prompted many retailers to significantly scale back their projected earnings for the remainder of the year. In that context, the early move to pivot to holiday mode makes a bit more sense: retail has been in a lull, and it’s only natural to move on to a traditionally lucrative period.
I wouldn’t at all be surprised if more than a few brands have decided that, since they already have all of their holiday inventory and promotional materials stockpiled and ready to go, why not roll it out a little early? It will be interesting to see when the print and television ad campaigns are released; it wouldn’t surprise me to these come out earlier than usual, as well.
This raises a couple of important questions. First, will it work? On one hand, it’s not exactly a massive paradigm shift — the holiday shopping “season” has been trending earlier for years, if not decades. The issue however, is not if retailers are ready, but if consumers are ready. In a relatively soft economy, at a time when parents are just getting their kids back to school, are people really ready to start their holiday shopping? I’m not sure, but I admit I’m a little skeptical. I don’t see any real signs of pent-up demand or any real reason to think that shoppers are primed ready to start spending enthusiastically anytime soon.
The second big question is, how does all of this factor in to holiday season projections? It’s early still, but there are (unfortunately) some reasons for pessimism. In addition to the ongoing economic sluggishness, even the calendar itself isn’t in retailers’ corner this year! Last year there were 32 days and five full shopping weekends between Black Friday and Christmas. This year, on the other hand, has just 26 days and only four shopping weekends. That’s a massive difference, and that fact alone could have a big impact on the final holiday tally. When you factor in international tensions over Syria and possible fall congressional showdowns over the budget and the debt ceiling, the overall economic narrative doesn’t seem too rosy. This is all speculative, of course, but it does seem like we might have a tougher time than usual getting all of the ingredients together for a happy (and lucrative) holiday shopping season.
Normally in a year like this, I’d forecast a small-to-modest gain over last year’s holiday season retail numbers, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1%-3%. But one less weekend basically negates that, and, at this point, I think I’d put my money on a season that comes in essentially flat. If the current trends hold, I’ll actually be surprised if we manage to eke out a 1% increase over last year. What would that kind of disappointing outcome mean for retailers and retail real estate? For some brands, it might make them rethink (or at least slow down) some of their mid- to long-term expansion plans. Plans for 2014 are already well underway, so any downstream impact would be felt in portfolio decisions made for 2015 at the earliest.
What’s on your holiday shopping list this year? More to the point, have you even made one — or even started thinking about making one? How do you see the impact from an early start? I’d love to hear your feedback about the holiday shopping season, and what your plans might be in the weeks and months ahead. Leave a comment below or contact me at Jeff@JeffGreenPartners.com to keep the conversation going.
Click here for past columns by Jeff Green.