Survey: Leading retailers predict a 2.5% comp lift in holiday sales, expect season to be highly promotional

CHICAGO — Underwhelming fall sales and continued economic and federal budgetary concerns have U.S. retailers in a “wait and see” mode this holiday season, according to a recent BDO USA survey released Monday. 

“We’re seeing retailers enter the holiday season with realistic, rather than optimistic, expectations,” stated Doug Hart, partner in the Retail and Consumer Product Practice at BDO USA. “Consumer confidence took a hit this summer amid slow economic growth and federal budget challenges, and it is still uncertain at best. However, we expect to see a heavy promotional environment, which should help consumers warm up to spending this holiday season.”

Chief marketing officers at leading U.S. retailers are forecasting a modest 2.5% increase in 2013 holiday comparable store sales. Last year, CMOs had a more optimistic projection of a 3.7% increase in holiday same store sales. This year’s conservative projection may reflect retailers’ concerns over the government shutdown, which occurred while the survey was fielded, and its impact on consumer confidence and spending this holiday season.

Retailers also have slightly lower expectations for total sales. Overall, CMOs forecast a 3.8% increase in total holiday store sales, down from an expected 4.7% increase in 2012. The 2013 projection is consistent with the National Retail Federation’s forecast of a 3.9% increase in holiday sales. Still, a majority (58%) expects sales to increase this year, and just 6% forecast a sales decrease. This may be linked to ongoing promotional activity and an earlier start to the holiday shopping season—particularly this year, with Hanukkah coinciding with Thanksgiving, BDO USA noted.

As many as 47% of retailers cited high unemployment as the biggest risk to holiday sales. High rates of long-term unemployment and underemployment continue to challenge consumers and concern retailers, but a number of other issues could also stymie spending. While fewer retailers point to energy and fuel costs (13% vs. 25% in 2012), the amount of retailers citing the housing market as the top threat doubled (16% vs. 8% in 2012). And given payroll tax increases and ongoing political budget debates, 6% of retailers cite tax changes as the greatest risk to holiday sales.

Gift cards continue to be a very popular option on holiday shopping lists. Among surveyed retailers who sell gift cards, 61% expect gift card sales to increase this season, marking a significant rise since 2009, when just 32% of CMOs projected an increase. Overall, retailers forecast a 6.9% increase in gift card sales, which could provide a boost to sales in January and February as consumers begin redeeming. Retailers may also look to incentivize early season and Thanksgiving weekend shoppers to return later by offering gift cards as a bonus offer for big ticket items like electronics.

Following the release of new iPads as well as other tablets and phones, most retail CMOs again expect consumer electronics will be both the top performing (69%) and most discounted (58%) category this holiday season. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, electronics sales are projected to increase 4% this holiday season, and Walmart reports that tablets already account for four out of its top five items in layaway. This marks a continued shift in consumer preference from traditional toys to modern consumer electronics as holiday gifts. The number of retailers expecting consumer electronics to be the hottest category has increased from 24% to 69% from 2009 to 2013, while those citing toys have decreased from 39% to 3% over the same period.

These findings are from the most recent edition of the BDO Retail Compass Survey of CMOs, which examined the opinions of 100 chief marketing officers at leading retailers located throughout the country. The retailers in the study were among the largest in the country, including 11 retailers in the top 100 based on annual sales revenue. The telephone survey was conducted in September and October of 2013.



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