J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (JCP) put out a vague description of its holiday results, and took a beating for them, at least on Wall Street. Macy's Inc. (NYSE: M) announced better-than-expected numbers for holiday sales and also laid off 2,500 people in the process. However, beyond the two, America's largest retailers have been quiet, although they certainly know how well they did for the holiday season. The silence ought to cause a great deal of concern. Good news travels fast.
In general, industry experts expected overall retail sales to rise 3% for November and December. E-commerce sales were expected to rise 12% or so. Research firm comScore reported recently that national online sales missed its expectations, rising by 10% to $46.5 billion against its forecast of 14% for people who bought holiday gifts using their desktop computers. That is a big "miss" when spread across so many billions of dollars. comScore chairman Gian Fulgoni made the observation that:
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[I]t should also be noted that many consumers continue to be challenged economically, which forced retailers to offer large price discounts in an attempt to stimulate demand. Unfortunately, this also had the effect of reducing total dollar sales since consumers could buy more for less.
There is no reason to think that the issues that plagued online sales growth were much different from those faced by the brick-and-mortar portion of the industry. Although it is not conclusive, one research operation did post its estimates for how traditional stores did during the 2013 holiday season. ShopperTrak reported that:
[D]uring the holiday shopping season of November and December 2013, national retail sales increased 2.7% and foot traffic decreased 14.6% when compared to the same two months last year. ShopperTrak's initial data indicates shoppers spent $265.9 billion during this period.
This assessment is barely short of depressing.
Wall Street has already rendered some opinion of how well the largest retailers did in the final two months of 2013. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s (WMT) shares are off almost 3% over the past month. Amazon.com Inc.'s (AMZN) are 4.5% higher. Each of these companies is big enough to be a modest proxy. Amazon may have outperformed the market, but not by enough to cheer anyone who hoped for a surge in online spending.
The holidays were likely bad ones for most retailers, which may be why most of them have nothing to say.