Daily Ticker

How Walmart Can Make Money Selling 32″ Flat Screen TVs For Under $100

Daily Ticker

Black Friday has turned into "Gray Thursday" with retailers like Macy’s (M), JCPenney (JCP), Walmart (WMT), Kmart, and Target (TGT) not only opening on Thanksgiving, but in many cases, opening earlier than last year (and in some cases, opening for the first time on the holiday).

This year's deals are bigger than ever: Walmart is offering a 32-inch flat screen TV for $98. According to Bloomberg, that’s down from $148 last year. One of the first shoppers at Old Navy (GPS) on Black Friday will win a $1 million jackpot. Retailers like Macy’s have added doorbusters and Best Buy (BBY) has told investors that holiday pressures mean it will have to increase its price competitiveness (i.e. offer better deals for shoppers).

One reason why retailers are drastically slashing prices is because 2013 could one of the weakest holiday seasons since 2009. And it's a shorter season too because Thanksgiving falls later this year. Low consumer confidence, which fell to a nine-month low in October, is one key reason why Morgan Stanley analysts forecast it will be the worst and most promotional shopping season for specialty apparel chains and department stores since 2008.

Related: Black Friday: You Can Sleep Late and Still Get Good Deals

It’s also emblematic of a broader shift in the retail landscape, where consumers are hooked on deals and now close to half of the goods sold in the U.S. are done so at a discount. According to Mark Ellwood, journalist and author of Bargain Fever: How To Shop in a Discounted World, retailers sold 40% to 45% of their inventory at some kind of promotional price in 2011. A decade before that, only 15% to 20% of merchandise was sold at a discount.

Why?

In the accompanying video, Ellwood points to the growth in the brick and mortar retail space, which has increased 4% every year since the 1980s (not even factoring the growth in e-commerce). At the same time, he says, the population has increased just under 1%.

“Too many shops and not enough shoppers,” Ellwood tells us. “So that means they cut their prices to seduce us.”

Related: Is Apple Plotting Against Your Old iPhone to Make You Buy a New One?

Sure it’s a buyers’ market, but let’s talk about the sellers. How can Walmart sell 32” TVs for under $100 on "Gray Thursday"?

And more importantly, how exactly can a retailer like Jos A Bank (JOSB) run huge promotions on a regular basis and still make money, let alone stay in business? My personal favorite Jos A Bank deal was last holiday season's Buy One Get Seven Free, advertised in this commercial (buy a suit, get two suits, two dress shirts, two silk ties, and an Android phone…Yes, a phone, too.)

Related: Holiday Cheer or Jeer? Conflicting Indicators Have Investors Scratching Their Heads

Ellwood says what price retailers like Jos A Bank and Wal-Mart charge to customers “has very little connection to what it costs to manufacture something." Basically, gone are the days where you marked up merchandise in formulaic step with what it cost to make it.

In the 1980s, Ellwood said “price consulting” was born, ushering in an era of “optimizing” price based on market conditions.

He says “everyone” now is now engaged in a planned promotional strategy.

So, from an investor perspective, how can you tell the difference between planned promotion and a desperate, overstocked retailer attempting to move merchandise at the expense of margins and the bottom line? Check out the video to find out.

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