November and December are always a battle of wills between consumers and retailers. Shoppers have been trained by decades of Black Friday door busters to be on the lookout for deeper and deeper markdowns as they hunt for gifts. Retailers’ objective every year is to hold the line on pricing, or at least avoid retreating too far past 30 percent off. Few succeed.
This year has the potential to be a true rout. Retail giants from LVMH to Walmart are warning about a spending slowdown. The National Retail Federation predicts overall holiday sales will rise between 3 and 4 percent, a middling pace that would definitively close the book on the post-pandemic “revenge shopping” boom (even in 2022, holiday sales rose 5.4 percent; in the pre-Covid era you have to go back to 2005 to find growth higher than that). Other forecasts are more optimistic.
So far, retailers have been relatively restrained with discounts. WalletHub canvassed 13 big retailers, and found 15.7 percent of apparel items on sale, compared with 21.1 percent last year. The average discount for all items was 35 percent, versus 37.2 percent in 2022.
That discipline is unlikely to hold. If the post-Thanksgiving crowd doesn’t show up at the mall on Friday, or fill their online carts next week, retailers will almost certainly hit the markdown panic button. Many are already sitting on higher inventories than they’d like, a holdover from the supply chain turmoil of 2021 and 2022. They need a good holiday season to clear that remaining overhang out.
Inflation, as always, is the X factor. On the one hand, prices are growing at their slowest pace since early 2021, easing pressure on consumers’ budgets and potentially putting some in the mood to spend. But many are also expecting (futilely, in most cases) that prices will now begin to fall back. Headlines about the falling cost of a typical Thanksgiving dinner only add to that belief.
Those shoppers will hold out for deeper discounts in December. Retailers may have little choice but to comply.
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