Holiday 2023 Could See Lowest Growth Since 2018
Holiday 2023 might not be as jolly as last year.
Early holiday forecasts put growth at 3 percent to 4.6 percent. That’s a far cry from the heady 7.6 percent sales growth rate retail logged last year during the November-to-January shopping period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
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Deloitte’s projections peg holiday sales rising 3.5 percent to 4.6 percent, for $1.54 trillion to $1.56 trillion total.
“Inflation, which accounted for much of the increase in the value of retail sales last year, should moderate. This means the total value of retail sales will grow more slowly than last year,” said Daniel Bachman, Deloitte’s U.S. economic forecaster. “Our forecast also reflects a decreasing pool of pandemic-era savings, both of which will weigh on retail sales and are reflected in our lower projected growth for the season.”
Online sales projections vary widely. Deloitte expects e-commerce sales to grow 10.3 percent to 12.8 percent, while Salesforce is estimating digital sales of $1.19 trillion, or flat year-over-year, up 4 percent globally and just 1 percent in the U.S.
Retailers have recently tempered their year-end outlooks. On recent earnings calls, many retail executives said they preferred to keep inventory lean and “chase” sales given the uncertainty around consumer spending
Retailers have reason to be concerned. On Wednesday, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose 0.6 percent in August from the prior month, seasonally adjusted, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics. Stripping out food and energy—gas prices jumped in August—core prices for goods and services rose 0.3 percent, the largest increase since June.
Apparel prices, essentially flat in July from the prior month, rose 0.2 percent in August and were up 3.1 percent on an unadjusted basis for the 12-months ended August 2023. While annual inflation has slowed to 4.3 percent from 4.7 percent, that’s not the 2 percent range the Federal Reserve is shooting for. Rate cuts could “still be a ways out,” according to Wells Fargo economists, even if the Fed isn’t likely to tinker with rates this month.
The latest CPI data, said Stephen Lamar, president and CEO of American Apparel & Footwear Association, is a “somber reminder of the financial pressures that American consumers faced in preparing for back-to-school and as they look ahead to the holidays and winter season.”
Comparing infant/toddler apparel prices this year to 2022, they’ve climbed 3.2 percent but are up 7.4 percent from 2019. Juvenile footwear prices tell a similar story. This year they’re 0.9 percent higher than last year and 5.6 percent steeper than in 2019, he pointed out.
Inflation “will follow us well into 2024 as long as the Biden Administration continues to outsource its tariff policies to the Trump Administration,” Lamar continued. “Together, the Biden and Trump Administration have collected nearly $200 billion in Section 301 tariffs, which continues to be regressively baked into the prices of clothes, shoes, and hundreds of other consumer goods.”
With inflation eating into consumer spending, Bain & Co. forecasts unadjusted seasonal sales growing just 3.0 percent year-over-year in November and December to nearly $915 billion. That anticipates nominal U.S. retail sales—a measure using current prices with no adjustments for the effect of price changes—will slow over the holiday period to what could be the lowest growth rate since 2018.
Bain projects 90 percent growth for nonstore sales for channels such as e-commerce and mail-order businesses. But after adjusting for inflation, “real U.S. holiday retail sales growth will be sluggish at just 1.0 percent, well below the 10-year average and the lowest real sales growth since the 2008 financial crisis,” it said.
“Retailers are facing new challenges this year and are overcoming headwinds from higher interest rates amid increasing debt,” said Aaron Cheris, who heads Bain’s Americas Retail practice.
Coresight Research expects low-single-digit total nominal retail sales growth in the final quarter of 2023. While easing inflation has contributed to slowing nominal retail growth, consumers have also cut back in real terms, according to a Coresight holiday 2023 report noting sluggish consumer spending on apparel and footwear.
Rising interest rates could squeeze consumers stuck with adjustable-rate mortgages, and weigh on homeowners who are refinancing or obtaining new mortgages, and have other “meaningful debts,” the Coresight report noted.
Salesforce said price-conscious consumers will look for October discounts as retailers kick off promotions to drum up early demand. Sending a discount code is the most effective way to get shoppers to visit a website in the first half of 2023, it found. The San Francisco-headquartered company expects retailers to rein in their return policies, but those with return windows of 30 days or less may see 7 percent fewer online sales in October and November.
The savviest retailers will use predictive and generative AI tools to personalize customer service and marketing promotions, Salesforce said, with commerce experiences powered by AI driving a potential $194 billion in global online holiday spend.
That would aid retailers as mall traffic began falling last month, according to Placer.ai. The data firm said that while open-air lifestyle centers attract the most affluent shoppers, top-tier centers at Class A-malls and outlets also lure customers with significant disposable income. August visits were down 2.5 percent at indoor malls, down 6.6 percent at open-air centers and down 5.9 percent at outlet malls. Placer.ai also attributed the dwindling in traffic during the day to students returning to school.
Stephen Sadove, former Saks Fifth Avenue chairman and CEO, spoke recently with retail analysts from Wells Fargo on the consumer environment. He said “restrained” markdowns and carefully controlled inventories led to “okay” back-to-school sales.
Low-end consumers are making tough choices on discretionary spending, while households earning $100,000 and up beginning to trade down, he said. Sadove, who also serves as a senior advisor to Mastercard, said middle-tier shopping centers are seeing more credit usage and higher delinquencies. And with student loan repayments set to begin on Oct. 1, middle-tier consumers might not spending until the holidays, creating new uncertainties for the year-end season.
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