Holiday sales: Outlook gets bleaker

Despite strong Black Friday sales, analysts say overall November results - and the holiday season - will be dismal.

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By Parija B. Kavilanz, CNNMoney.com senior writer

The holiday shopping season is off to a slow start. What is your spending strategy?
  • Stick to a list
  • Wait for better deals
  • Buy fewer gifts
  • I don't have a strategy
chart_holiday_retail_sales_08.jpg

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- When stores report their November sales Thursday, analysts expect the scorecard will look pretty bleak once again.

What that means is there is likely very little hope left for the the 2008 holiday shopping season.

Analysts forecast that last month's same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, will show a steep 2.4% decline, according to Thomson Reuters.

If the figures come in as expected, the monthly decline would mark the weakest same-store sales results ever registered since Thomson Reuters first started tracking the estimates in 2000.

Same-store sales rose 4% last November.

The firm tracks monthly sales for 34 of the nation's largest retailers including Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500), Target (TGT, Fortune 500), Gap (GPS, Fortune 500), and J.C. Penney (JCP, Fortune 500).

Although reports indicate that total Black Friday sales were stronger than expected this year, once the early-bird super discounts were exhausted, experts said consumers pared back significantly on their trips to the mall on Saturday and Sunday.

The National Retail Federation said average spending on Black Friday was up 7.2% this year versus last year, but that the strong traffic on that day "did subside after Friday."

Traffic and sales tracker ShopperTrak reported that a 3% sales increase on Black Friday was followed by a 0.8% decline in sales on Saturday and a bigger 2.3% drop in Sunday's sales.

Excluding the impact of Wal-Mart, which many industry watchers expect will post a slightly improved gain over the same period last year, same-store sales are predicted to fall an even worse 6.9%, Thomson Reuters said.

Sales, minus Wal-Mart, rose 6% for the same period a year ago.

"It's become evident that the most notable threats to discretionary spending are unemployment, and the deteriorating credit and housing markets," Thomson's retail analyst Jharonne Martis, wrote in the report.

"Consequently, it appears that consumers continue to purchase basic necessities at the discounters," she said.

Another same-store sales tracking firm, Retail Metrics, expects a 2% overall sales decline in November and a 6.3% drop excluding the impact of Wal-Mart.

"Favorable weather, falling gas prices, increased refinance activity and deep discounts were overwhelmed by a parade of bleak economic news and plummeting retail earnings projections," Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics, wrote in a note Wednesday.

"Consumers have slashed their shopping lists this year to just kids and core family members," Perkins said. "With a laser-like focus, [consumers] are cherry-picking deeply discounted items and forgoing impulse purchases, which are key to retailers. All of this has led to reduced traffic levels and lower average transactions."

The November reporting period includes Black Friday, or the day after Thanksgiving which is the "unofficial" kickoff to the critical holiday shopping season, through the holiday weekend.

Combined sales for November and December can account for as much as 50% of merchants' annual profits and sales.

With a disappointing Thanksgiving weekend, one industry analyst now predicts that holiday sales will be even more dismal.

Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, lowered his holiday sales estimate Wednesday to a 3.5% decline from his earlier forecast for a 1% drop.

"When you look at the numbers, you see that over the weekend consumers were frugal and focused, staying within their budgets," Beemer said. "Add to that the finding that some consumers will give cash or nothing at all instead of gift cards this year makes me very pessimistic."

Richard Hastings, a consumer strategist with Global Hunter Securities, said he's sticking with his prediction for a 6 to 8% drop in holiday sales.

Other analysts are just as pessimistic that the one-day Black Friday sales rush won't save the season.

"It is important to remember the significant cost [of the Black Friday sales increases] to retailers of driving those sales given the breadth and depth of promotions," Amy Wilcox Noblin, analyst with Pali Research, wrote in a note this week.

"Unfortunately, Black Friday bargains will not save November or the holiday season, in our opinion," she said.

But Craig Johnson, president of retail consulting group Customer Growth Partners, is still holding out hope.

He's one of the few industry experts who is forecasting a holiday sales increase - between 2.5 to 3% - this year.

However, after a dramatic post-Black Friday slowdown in both sales and traffic this past weekend, he's "very cautiously optimistic' about that estimate.

"Black Friday was not great. The overall weekend was not great," Johnson said. "Retailers really need to dig out of a hole." His worst case scenario is for a holiday sales decline of 1 to 2% if things get worse in the next five weeks.

For its part, the NRF is maintaining its forecast for a 2.2% holiday sales increase, which would be still be the slowest pace of gain in six years. To top of page

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