Cyber Monday

I think the most interesting thing about this year’s Black Friday/Cyber Monday is that, despite the weekend’s decreasing overall relevance for American shoppers, business has been unusually strong.  This is likely in large part because consumers in the aggregate finally–eight years after the bottom of the economy (and 8 1/2 years after the bottom in world stock markets)–feel confident that the recovery is real.  Yes, we still have serious regional, educational and other demographic disparities.  But the typical consumer appears to feel that his/her job is safe and that family finances are enough under control to allow a return to more-or-less normal spending.  This is an important positive economic sign.

If this is correct, then it’s probably also time to begin to sort through the Wall Street wreckage in the retail sector.  I’d be particularly inclined to look at bricks-and-mortar, where more open wallets are likely to make the greatest positive impact.


By the way, I’ve been shopping online for a RAID array.  While I was looking on one site, a price comparison app told me that the item I was thinking about was substantially cheaper at Wal-Mart (WMT).  The WMT site told me that I would get $35 off the purchase if I applied for a credit card and bought today–both of which I did.  Almost immediately I got an email that said my purchase had been cancelled, but gave me a phone number to call for an explanation.  I did.  After about 10 minutes of waiting, when I was next in line for an agent, the line disconnected.  I ended up finding the item for the same price and with much faster delivery from B&H.

WMT may be a more formidable competitor for Amazon than it was a year or two ago.  And the AMZN price for what I wanted was 50% higher than WMT’s!!!  But WMT still has a ways to go, at least handling high-volume online days.  That’s probably more a positive than a negative for the stock, however, since there’s still considerable scope for improvement.




assessing the holiday sales season

The commentators and analysts I read all seemed to argue that this holiday selling season would be sub-par.  They all trotted out the familiar stories of general economic malaise, lack of wage growth, the shrinking of the middle class, globalization, China, warm weather…

We’re now entering the home stretch of the holiday sales race as post-Christmas bargain hunting comes into full swing.  What I find striking is that the results so far have been much better than the consensus had expected.

What catches my eye is the jump in online (and especially online mobile) spending, and the strength of Millennial categories like furniture.

The mismatch between projection and reality seems to me to suggest that the consensus is trend following, and because of that tracking the spending of Baby Boomers–who have dominated the retail scene over the past few decades.  At the same time, it’s failing to capture the emergence of Millennials as an economic force.

The change may be as simple as that Baby Boomers no longer have gigantic home equity to tap to fund current spending.  Or it may be more powerful than a subtraction of the Boomer excesses of the past twenty years.  In either case, the overall economy is likely in better shape than the consensus believes.  And Millennials may be emerging as economic drivers faster than most have thought possible.



US retail inventories

Going into the end of year holiday shopping season, inventories of US merchants–especially of apparel–seem to be unusually (i.e., too) high.  I don;t think this is the case across the board.  It appears to be especially true of department stores, however.

I think this oversupply is partly caused by a reaction to last year’s troubles at the West Coast ports, meaning that merchants made their buying decisions early, to avoid running out of stock if labor problems resurfaced.

But I also think a couple of mindset issues are at work, as well.

–the recent strategic shift Wal-Mart announced to emphasize the internet suggests to me that throughout established retail, high level, long time executives who made their careers controlling the logistics of servicing physical stores have been in denial about online.

–in a housing upswing, the typical pattern around the world is that people who are establishing new households, either by renting or by buying, find the money to pay the rent/mortgage, paint, decorate, furnish…by shifting spending away from other, less immediately pressing, items.  Like apparel, for example.

The only time I can recall this reallocation not occurring is in the US, during the period from the mid-1990s to the crash in 2008.  That’s when homeowners were financing consumption by borrowing against the equity in their houses.

That’s no longer the case.  We’re back in a more normal environment, where a dollar spent on furniture or hoe improvements means a dollar less to be spent on clothes or toys (except for Star Wars, of course).

My thoughts:

It’s easier to adjust from having made the second mindset mistake than the first.  Revenues may not show who has made either; profits (or a lack of them) will.

The idea that as investors in retail we have to play the housing cycle as a key determinant of profit growth is another aspect of the Millennials vs. Boomers phenomenon in the economy.

housing boom and retail sales

Last week, Macy’s, Kohl’s and Wal-Mart all reported disappointing 2Q13 results–leading to worries that economic growth in the US is beginning to slow.  In Wal-Mart’s case, I think the problem is structural, not cyclical.  The manufacturing  jobs much of the chain’s lower-income customer base has traditionally had have disappeared forever.  With them, fat paychecks have gone as well.

But what about Macy’s and Kohl’s?  Why are their results so at odds with general economic indicators?

One possibility is that the weakness in general merchandise they’re exhibiting is a result of the housing boom.

In most areas of the world, and over most periods of time–except for the US during the past few decades–a cyclical housing boom alters consumers’ retail spending patterns.  The change usually appears with a modest time lag.

After buying a new residence, the owners typically redirect their spending in two ways:

–more of their income goes into paying their mortgage, and

–they redirect what remains toward furnishing and decorating their new home.

So spending on furniture, kitchen appliances, paint, carpeting… rises.  Spending on restaurants, cellphones, clothing… falls.  The latter category doesn’t drop to zero.  But consumers cut back–both on big-ticket items and on shopping-as-entertainment, where the items in question aren’t unique or special.

The only exception to this pattern that I’m aware of comes close to home.  During the long period when interest rates in the US were in decline–from the early Eighties until now–falling interest rates made housing prices rise so quickly that new homeowners weren’t forced to cut back on spending.  They could borrow against their fast-appreciating home equity, instead.

It’s too early to tell for sure, but the lackluster sales we’re seeing from Macy’s and Kohl’s may just be a return to normal by US homeowners after an extended period of excess.  If so, the situation is a threat to department store profits, and stock prices, but not to the overall economy or stock market.