3 ominous signs for retail ... maybe
Wal-Mart's "disappointment," Home Depot's warning and Buffett's Gap exit ... are they omens or one-offs?
NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Retail investors had three bits of bad news this morning: Wal-Mart's disappointment, Home Depot's warning, and Buffett's Gap dump. The question is, should they connect the dots or not?
"Some of the largest retailers are saying their business isn't doing so good. Let's listen to the whispers before the roars," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of New York-based retail consultancy and investment banking firm, Davidowitz & Associates.
"Wal-Mart says sales are slowing. Home Depot posted declining same-store sales last quarter. Target warned of weakening same-store sales. Gap has struggled with falling sales for a long time. This is a signal that we're going to see some softness this holiday season," Davidowitz said.
This is troubling news on two fronts. First, the fourth-quarter holiday period typically accounts for 50 percent of merchants annual sales and profits. Secondly, consumer spending fuels two-thirds of the nation's economy, thereby making it a vital engine of economic growth.
Wal-Mart's shares traded lower on the news because investors appeared to be more focused on CEO Lee Scott's comments about how higher gas prices were pressuring Wal-Mart's customers to make fewer trips to stores.
San Francisco-based Gap, which operates its namesake stores and the Banana Republic and Old Navy chains, has suffered same-store sales declines for 12 out of the past 13 months.
High debt loads and a negative savings rate is certainly fueling consumers' belt tightening. However, retail analysts say a cooling housing market is an even bigger problem down the road.
As home prices cool and interest rates creep up, consumers are backing away from refinancing their home mortgages. The nation's housing market has thus far made consumers feel wealthier, acting as a bulwark against rising energy prices.
When interest rates were falling and home prices were rising, Americans quickly refinanced their mortgages at the lower rates, effectively turning their homes into piggy banks, and tapping into them for cash.
All that has changed.
"The home is the single biggest asset people own. When you have negative savings, your whole wealth is locked into the house," said Davidowitz.
And not having the option to pull cash out of the home anymore is slowly but surely affecting the psychology of the consumer. "This is what these weak sales patterns are all about," he said.
Not so negative
Other experts, however, caution against painting an overall negative scenario for retailing as a whole.
Janet Hoffman, managing partner with Accenture's retail practice, said she's not yet convinced about an overall downtrend in retailing.
She pointed to the increase in June and July aggregated comparable sales numbers from the top U.S. chain stores.
"Retailing overall isn't in trouble. However this year we will see a clear segmentation of winners and losers, Hoffman said.
Results from a recent Accenture back-to-school spending survey of 573 consumers showed people were spending the same or more than they did at the same time last year
"People aren't necessarily cutting back spending but making very definite choices about where they're going to shop," she said.
Craig Johnson, president of retail consulting group Customer Growth Partners, agreed with Hoffman.
"I hesitate to draw a retail-wide conclusion just from looking at Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Gap," Johnson said.
"Each of these companies has their individual challenges. Gap has struggled for several years now with its merchandise and advertising. It'll be bogus for them to blame their problems on the economy."
Home Depot management had taken the eye of the ball in terms of the core retail business to focus on supply-side acquisitions, he said. "Now they're trying to move the pendulum back toward the middle."
"Retailing has been very robust for three years now. So clearly there'll be some softening on the margins," said Johnson. "The good retailers will continue to thrive even if consumer spending slows.
"Having the right merchandise is key. So is customer service is essential as is knowing how your customer likes to shop," Johnson said.