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Consumers are behaving very robustly: NRF CEO

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Yahoo Finance's Alexis Christoforous and Matthew Shay, NRF President and CEO, discuss how COVID-19 is impacting holiday shopping.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOPHOROUS: As you just heard, retailers could end up having a pretty strong finish to 2020 despite all the challenges that the coronavirus pandemic has dealt the industry. The National Retail Federation expects holiday sales to rise between 3.6% and 5.2% this year. Joining us now is Matt Shay. He is NRS president and CEO. We're also joined by Yahoo Finance's Sibile Marcellus. Good to see you both.

So Matt, what is going to make buyers feel confident about going out or, maybe staying home, and spending this holiday season?

MATTHEW SHAY: Well, Alexis, I think what we just heard from Ines in that update is that consumers have been behaving very robustly throughout the last several months. And really, since the summer, we've seen six consecutive months of year-over-year increases in consumer spending. By our calculation, ex-gas, ex-autos, retail sales for the first 10 months of this year are up 6.5%. And for the month of October, we're up 10.5%.

So consumers have a lot of firepower. They're got increased savings. They've still got money leftover from paying down debt due to the direct payments they receive from the federal government, unemployment benefits. Retailers are benefiting from that. And I think you're going to see consumers out. The forecast we've put out-- 3.6%, 5.2% growth exceeds the 10-year average pretty substantially.

And to put it in perspective, last year, we saw $730 billion over the November, December period. This forecast would take us to between $755 billion and $765 billion in spending. So we're looking forward to a strong holiday season.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: A new holiday consumer survey from Jefferies just came out and said that 74% of people plan to spend less this holiday season because of financial difficulties or a loss of a job. Now, how do you pair that with the National Retail Federation's finding that retail sales will go up 3% to 5%? How does the pandemic factor into that?

MATTHEW SHAY: Yeah, Sibile, I think it's a really good question. There are a number of different surveys and assessments out there. There are forecasts, there are surveys that ask consumers questions about their intended behavior. There are a lot of different methodologies.

We both do both a forecast, which is what I just referred to a minute ago, that 3.65% to 5.2%-- that's based on 20 years of data, about 2,000 economic indicators at the macro level, housing prices, unemployment, gasoline prices, savings rates, all those things. And then we do a consumer survey as well.

And our survey did indicate that consumers would spend a little bit less this year than last year. Last year, they spent about $1,050 on holiday gift giving and decorating. This year, they're spending just less than $1,000. And the real difference there, the delta between last year and this year, is the self-gifting, the purchases they've already made, again, as has been alluded to, as Ines said a minute ago.

People have been spending on themselves in their homes all year long in the sporting goods category, in the electronics category, cooking at home more. Everything you did at work or out of the home before, you do in the home now. So a lot of that spending has been pulled forward. That's going to impact how much people spend this holiday season as well.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: Have you found it difficult in working with local and state officials with the National Retail Federation in trying to keep retailers open, the brick-and-mortar stores during this pandemic?

MATTHEW SHAY: Well, I do think that this is a little bit of deja vu. Back in March, we experienced a great deal of uncertainty, a lot of arbitrary decisions about which businesses would be permitted to remain open, which businesses would be forced to close out of a concern for the public health. We're seeing a little bit of that again now. I think the big difference is through programs like our Operation Open Doors, which shared the lessons and experiences of many retailers earlier this year with state and local governments.

We've learned how to do things safely now. There's nothing that's inherently unsafe about the shopping experience, much less about the products that are sold. What's unsafe are certain kinds of behavior. And so if we can modify behavior, if we can adjust behavior, then we ought to be able to go about most of our daily lives. And we shouldn't be making arbitrary decisions deciding that, well, you can't buy a sweater because it's unsafe to buy a sweater, but it's OK to buy a bag of apples because it's OK to buy a bag of apples.

It's not about the products. They're inherently inanimate objects. It's about the behavior that goes on around those products. We've demonstrated there's a way to behave safely. And with that guidance, we ought to be able to keep the economy open.

ALEXIS CHRISTOPHOROUS: Matt, are you getting a feel for what people are interested in buying this holiday season?

MATTHEW SHAY: Well, Alexis, a great question. I would say that we have looked at every holiday this year-- Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, Halloween-- and what we have seen-- and it's not unusual at a time when we're facing a real national, real global challenge like this-- is people are looking for a way to express themselves, to have a little fun, to be joyful in their daily lives, to celebrate something. And so people are out buying gifts.

So we'll see some of the same categories. We're going to see apparel. We're going to see jewelry. We'll still see electronics. We'll see sporting goods. We'll see books. We're going to see a lot of gift giving in the normal categories that we see this year. And I think that's because people are looking for something to celebrate in the midst of what has otherwise been a pretty challenging year.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: Do you expect online sales to really be focused with Amazon, Walmart, and Target? And also, when it comes to apparel, do you think that's going to pick up, or do you think people just are not interested in buying clothing this year?

MATTHEW SHAY: Well, I think we are seeing the apparel category pick up, and really because the apparel category was hit hardest based on those arbitrary decisions about business restrictions on opening orders. That segment of the market came back most quickly. And while I think most of those retailers and those brands are still down for the year, they're not down nearly as much as we thought they might be because consumers did begin to go back out June, July, August, and consumption has continued right through September, October, November.

So the apparel category is doing much better than it was. And when it comes to the online experience, I think every retailer realized that as robust as they thought their online offerings were, they needed to get better. Whether you were already very well penetrated as some companies were, whether you were trying to create that as a new strength of your operating plan, I think everyone realized there was more penetration. And consumers really wanted that.

I think the big question as we get into 2021 is how much of that's going to be permanently changed behavior, and once we get to a widely distributed vaccine, how much people revert to old behaviors. That's the real question, and no one knows the answer yet.

ALEXIS CHRISTOPHOROUS: No, we do not. We're going to have to wait and see. I hope you enjoy your holiday shopping experience. Matt Shay, President and CEO of the National Retail Federation. And thanks to you too, Sibile.