Last Friday the Department of Commerce released its August retail sales figures. Total sales rose 5% compared to August of 2013.
The business and economic media heralded the news and what it might mean for retail sales performance over the next several months. The New York Times decided that the 70% of GDP growth dependent on consumer spending would be buoyed by this clear message that consumers are fed up with being cautious and poised to open their collective wallet in a big way.
A look behind the numbers tells a slightly different story, however.
Auto sales were responsible for most of the gain. Sales at automobile dealers and parts stores grew by almost 9% to $90 billion, representing over 20% of total retail sales. Retailers of health and personal care products enjoyed an 8% increase, but represent less than 6% of all retail sales. Sales at non-store, or pure-play e-commerce, retailers grew by 7%.
Department stores, apparel specialty stores, off-pricers and other purveyors of non-auto and discretionary goods, however, posted sales growth that underperformed the average. Apparel specialty stores got only a 3.2% pop from back-to-school. Food and beverage store sales rose by 3.6% compared to last year, boosted by rising prices in some key product categories. General merchandise store sales were up by less than 2%, depressed by a 1% drop in department, chain and specialty stores.
In other words, once folks have finished replacing their worn out pre-recession cars, retail sales could be facing a tough period.
Over the past several weeks, publicly-held retail companies have been publishing their second quarter and first half sales and earnings performance results. Total sales of the top 35 companies in the department, discount, apparel specialty and off-price sectors were up by only 1% for the quarter and the half compared to the corresponding period in 2013. Market growth is not even keeping up with inflation. In real terms, it is in decline. The sales data indicate that off-pricers and apparel specialty store sales took share from department stores in the first half of the year, mostly by opening new stores.
Comps were flat for both periods. Comps at specialty stores fell by almost 2% in the six-month period, due largely to big drops at teen specialty stores, while those at department stores were flat.
There were a few standouts in the crowd. Cato Stores, Chico’s, Dress Barn parent Ascena Retail, Limited Brands, off-pricers TJX and Ross, Nordstrom, JCPenney, Urban Outfitters and board sports inspired teen retailer Zumiez were among those reporting nice total sales increases, positive comps, or both.
But there were far more losers. The teen retailers suffered an almost 4% drop in total sales in the second quarter and the first half. Specialty stores dELia*s, Aeropostale and Wet Seal and department stores Stage and Sears Holdings suffered low-double-digit sales declines. Almost all of them had serious drops in comps as well. Overall gross margin deteriorated by 50 basis points. Total net income fell by a whopping 11%.
I’ve pored through the transcripts of at least two dozen quarterly earnings conference calls, looking for some indication that better days were expected in the third and fourth quarters. Most of the retailers were cautiously optimistic at best.
I also spoke to several Wall Street analysts. Although some were bullish about the ability of particular companies to gain share at the expense of others, none would go so far as to say that the overall market is growing more than a percent or so.
So, although I would love to believe that consumers are going to start spending more on clothes, shoes, jewelry, home furnishings, and other fun stuff, I think those predictions are a bit premature, if not flat-out wrong.
Which might explain why Wall Street met the retail sales news with a yawn, and markets closed down on Friday.
As we enter the all-important holiday selling season, it’s important to keep in mind that an oversupplied market chasing apathetic demand is not a recipe for growth. This year, an over-hyped and über-promotional Thanksgiving and Cyber week will consume a large part of the holiday budget, after which things will quiet down a bit before the last weekend leading up to Thursday, December 25. Every indication is that the back half of the year will be just like the first, with flat sales and challenged margins and earnings.
Increased market share alone is what will separate the winners from the losers, and will require compelling product and an engaging store environment, both online and off. To achieve this, retailers will have had to invest in store expense, technology, and intensified customer engagement marketing. They will also, unfortunately, need to be willing to take it on the gross margin chin.