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Gift cards, early deals, trips: Why retailers are trying extra hard to woo holiday shoppers

Amazon held what amounted to an extra Prime Day in October, blanketing its site with deals. Best Buy rolled out Black Friday-level sales last month. And on Friday, Kohl’s entered the first 200 people to walk into each of its stores into a sweepstakes, with prizes including gift cards to Sephora and a family trip to a Legoland resort.

With the arrival of the all-important holiday shopping season, retailers are not just competing with one another to attract customers. They are also competing against the clock.

For now, Americans are spending, buoyed by pandemic-era savings and a red-hot labor market. But at the same time, prices are climbing at the fastest pace in decades and the Federal Reserve is attempting to rein them in by raising interest rates. That effort to curb demand by making borrowing more expensive is, in turn, making consumers pessimistic about the economy. And a recession is a distinct possibility.

Retailers, some of them sitting on a glut of inventory, want to sell as much as they can while consumers are still pulling out their wallets. So they are barraging customers with discounts, hoping to entice them to buy before an economic slowdown causes a change in behavior once more.

Whether retailers succeed will have profound implications. Billions of dollars are at stake, and companies will be watching the outcome closely as they make hiring and investment decisions for the new year.

“We’re going to spend a lot of time right now focused on executing our plan, getting through the holiday season and then assessing the consumer and the overall retail landscape as we look to 2023,” Target CEO Brian Cornell said on a call with analysts this month.

More broadly, retail sales during the holiday shopping period could provide clues about the trajectory of the economy in the weeks and months to come.

“For the overall economy, I think that it’s going to be very important to look at what the consumer is doing because, really, that’s going to be your key indicator,” said Lydia Boussour, an economist at EY-Parthenon. “It’s the key engine of growth.”

Forecasters generally believe that consumer spending, which accounts for about 70% of total economic growth, will remain strong in the fourth quarter, in large part because of household savings. Collectively, Americans by the middle of this year were still sitting on about $1.7 trillion in extra savings accumulated during the pandemic, based on Fed estimates, thanks in part to government aid.

But in September, the most recent month for which calculations were available, Americans saved only 3.1% of their after-tax income, less than half the share before the pandemic. And poorer Americans are seeing their savings dwindle even faster than wealthier ones.

Meanwhile, credit card balances in the third quarter swelled 15% compared with a year earlier, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That was the largest increase in more than two decades, as consumers increasingly rely on credit even as borrowing costs are rising.

And a University of Michigan survey this month showed a sharp decline in “consumer sentiment” — a measurement of how people feel about the economy and their financial situation. Even as consumers continue to make purchases, Boussour said, “they’re feeling depressed about the overall economic situation, and they are going to grow increasingly reluctant to spend.”

Retail sales grew 1.3% in October, more than expected, as shoppers snapped up earlier-than-usual holiday deals. Some major retailers, including Walmart and Home Depot, reported strong third-quarter earnings, bolstered by sales for less-discretionary goods such as groceries or items related to home renovation and do-it-yourself projects. “Households are still spending money because they can,” said Aneta Markowska, chief financial economist at investment bank Jefferies. “I still think there’s a lot of uncertainty about next year because the Fed obviously has raised rates very aggressively this year and we haven’t really felt the effects yet.”

But several retailers said they saw demand for their products slow during the month, and when shoppers did buy, they seemed motivated by sales. Some companies have lowered their financial outlook or declined outright to provide forecasts for next year to avoid being caught flat-footed. This was not how the end of this year was supposed to be. For two holiday shopping seasons, retailers strained against pandemic disruptions. Now that the virus restrictions and supply chain snarls that defined those periods have largely abated, retailers had been expecting something of a return to normal.

Instead, retailers find themselves trying to outrun a likely economic slowdown.

To entice bargain-hungry shoppers and move unwanted inventory, many companies are promoting “value,” offering steep discounts and low prices more so than last year even as labor costs remain high. Many started their holiday blitzes early in the hopes of jump-starting sales. Target held Deal Days in October and Old Navy rolled out a “Sorry, Not Sorry” holiday campaign. “Value clearly matters to everyone,” Best Buy CEO Corie Barry said on an earnings call Tuesday.

At J.C. Penney, stores returned to 5 a.m. doorbusters on Black Friday, promoting the “pre-inflation pricing” for items such as Instant Pots, hair flat irons and coats.

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