This morning on my way back from the farmers’ market, I passed a Whole Foods Market selling small Christmas trees for my “holiday table.”
It’s November 20. Thanksgiving is NEXT week. Christmas is more than a month away.
You may be noticed other signs of retailers jumping the seasonal gun.
Black Friday sales–you know the consumer crush on the Friday after Thanksgiving–are in full swing with already with advertisers yelling “Why wait for Black Friday bargains?”
I’m hearing Christmas carols in ads and seeing Christmas gifting spiels now. Burlington Coat Factory (owner by Burlington Stores (BURL)) is attacking my TV eyeballs with ads telling me how much I can save with discounts from its stores. Burlington saved my Christmas, one claims. Another shows a shopping cutting the price tags off gifts and notes that you’ll can seem to have spent way more that you actually have this Christmas.
On one level it adds up to an effort by retailers to capture Christmas sales before the surge in coronavirus infections wipes out the holiday shopping season. And as such it’s a sign of worry that the holiday shopping will be a big disappointment this year.
But on another level it speaks to a more general worry by retailers about consumer spending period and not just for the holiday shopping season. One of my favorite indicators for retailers’ worry about consumer buying is the length of the credit terms that companies are willing to offer to buyers. After watching the term of car loans expand from five years to six–and wondering what kind of a collateral a six-year-old car might make–I’ve recently started to see offers that advertise seven year loans. That goes along with the shrinking price tag on monthly car leases. I haven’t owned a car since I sold my 12-year-old Beetle in 1984 and living in Manhattan most days I don’t feel the need to correct that situation. But looking at the offers of $149 or $179 a month to lease a car, I do find myself tempted. Especially when it can easily cost $200 to rent a car for a weekend here in New York. (Although it’s easy to find a “deal” for less. A growing gap between regular prices and “deals” is another sign of flagging consumer demand in my book.)
Yes, bargain pricing can create demand. But it’s not all that great for margins. And it is hard to take back those generous terms. Car makers have been unable to go back go five-year loans from six-year terms. I remember an ad from my childhood in which a retailer screamed “We lose money on every sale but make it up on volume!!!”
To track investor worries about retail sales this holiday season, I’d keep my eye on the Consumer Discretionary Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLY.) I’d watch that ETF’s absolute performance–the ETF was down 0.52% today–and it’s relative performance versus the Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLP). I’d also watch a few individual stocks as indicators. Tapistry (TPR), the old Coach, has been on a tear since the end of September. The stock is likely to be one of the first retail offerings to see profit taking if investors get worried enough about the sector. I’d also keep an eye on fast-casual restaurant chains. Less shopping means fewer customers for Applebee’s (owned by Dine Brands (DIN) and the Olive Garden (owned by Darden Restaurants (DRI)) and other similar chains. I’d also look to see if/when Amazon’s (AMZN) stock starts to move higher on traders’ theory that less brick and mortar shopping means more online shopping. In that same vein I’d look to see if online discount sites such as Overstock (OSTK) get a boost during what it shaping up as a weak holiday shopping season.