The Truth Behind Retail’s Supposed Recovery: Are Consumers Spending More Simply Because They Have More?

Perhaps it isn’t a rebound after all.

After a rough few years during which traditional retailers grappled with — and many succumbed to — digital disruption and sweeping consumer shifts, 2018 marked the year when some of the industry’s key players appeared to find their footing. (Sports Authority, The Limited and Wet Seal were among those to shutter via liquidation at the height of the so-called “retail apocalypse,” while previously beleaguered retailers like Macy’s and Kohl’s logged stronger earnings results this year.)

But those looking to cast these recent strides as a full-fledged retail recovery could be reacting prematurely. With fuel prices trending downward, unemployment at a five-decade low and new individual as well as corporate tax breaks, many experts contend that what has been perceived as a rally for the industry could very well be the byproduct of a healthier consumer.

It’s not great news for retailers as they begin to celebrate the positive holiday results rolling in this week. On Wednesday, new data from Mastercard SpendingPulse revealed U.S. shoppers propelled total U.S. retail sales between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24 (excluding automobiles) to a six-year high of 5.1 percent.

According to B. Riley FBR analyst Jeff Van Sinderen, those upbeat readings are due in “huge part” to the “strong consumer” — although he noted that retailers with ”the right content and value proposition” were also likely to have reaped some of the season’s rewards.

Van Sinderen advised waiting to see retailers’ margins before a final analysis. “There was pretty aggressive promotional activity that started a bit earlier. So [while] overall sales numbers appear to be solid — driven heavily by digital — how margins shake out for retailers will be important, and we have some concerns surrounding margins for those who panicked a bit during the lull [between Thanksgiving weekend and the 10 days before Christmas].”

CL King & Associates analyst Steve Marotta also attributed much of the seemingly solid holiday period, along with the bulk of the past year’s victories, to the strength of the consumer. But, like Van Sinderen, he added that for retailers that were able to grow or maintain market share, it was also likely a “function of their investments in omnichannel.”

“Retailers should take a victory lap whenever they can because they’ve been hard to come by lately,” Marotta said, noting that he’s reluctant to take all the credit away from firms that have worked aggressively to make their business stronger digitally this year.

“Every incremental step these retailers take along the way to enhance the consumer omnichannel experience is a positive for them,” he said. “[Traditional retailers] have a competitive advantage against Amazon in that they have the ability to offer customers the experience of a tangible transaction.”

It’s also worth noting that retailers that haven’t launched strong omnichannel initiatives or significantly improved their store experiences — teetering on liquidation, for example, is Sears Holdings Corp. — aren’t enjoying the same advances as those that have done so.

Still, a quick glance of the stock market’s recent volatility — it clocked its worst Christmas Eve in history this week as the Dow plunged to 2018 lows — is evidence that successful retail players have little reason to rest on their laurels. In fact, fear surrounding fading consumer sentiment at least partially explains the market’s wave of sell-offs. Just this week, not-for-profit research firm The Conference Board reported a developing pattern of fading consumer sentiment.

The organization said Thursday U.S. consumer confidence decreased in December following a modest decline in the month prior. The index now stands at 128.1, down from 136.4 in November, as consumers demonstrate mounting fears that some robust economic trends — such as record low unemployment and affordable gas prices — will start to temper in the new year.

Add to that a government shutdown last week, the Federal Reserve’s decision to increase interest rates this month and the tumultuous trade dispute between the U.S. and China — “None of it is conducive to increasing consumer spend,” according to Marotta.

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