By Paul Vigna
The holiday season is expected to be brutal for many retailers.
Investors are bidding up their stock prices anyway.
Holiday spending is projected to fall 7% from 2019 to an average
of $1,387 per household, according to a Deloitte survey of about
4,000 consumers. Of those respondents, 38% said they expect to
spend less this year compared with last year.
That should be troubling news for retailers, which typically do
their biggest business of the year in the weeks between
Thanksgiving and Christmas. The sector is under especially acute
pressure in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced
many Americans to tighten their purse strings and reduced foot
traffic at malls.
Many investors still say they see reason for hope.
The S&P 500's consumer-discretionary sector -- home to
Target Corp., Nike Inc. and Hasbro Inc. as well as Amazon.com Inc.
-- is up 11% over the past three months. The staples sector, which
includes Procter & Gamble Co., Costco Wholesale Corp. and Estee
Lauder Cos., is up 5.5%.
"We all left retail for dead three months ago," said Nicholas
Colas, co-founder of research firm DataTrek. Yet there are reasons
to believe the retailers that survive this year have upside in the
years ahead, he said.
Big retailers such as Amazon and Home Depot Inc., which have
both benefited from changes in consumer behavior during the
pandemic, aren't the only stocks notching big gains. The S&P
Retail Select Index, which was launched in 2006 and includes 84
smaller retailers like Carvana Co. and GameStop Corp., has doubled
from its March lows and recently tagged a new all-time high.
Among the retailers that typify the renewal of hope in the
sector is Gap Inc. Its shares surged 14% Thursday after the company
delivered an optimistic investor-day presentation. The company is
making progress with brands like Old Navy and Athleta, improving
its offerings and planning store closures.
Those are the kinds of moves investors like to see. Gap shares
are up 64% over the past three months and trading around $21 --
still a far cry from their high above $45 in 2014.
Carvana and GameStop have also taken steps to cut costs. The
e-commerce used-car seller stopped launching new vending machines
and opening up in new markets, while GameStop cut salaries for
executives and staff, slashed inventory and cut capital spending.
Carvana shares have risen 37% in the past three months, and
GameStop has more than tripled.
Many retailers have done well to pivot toward things such as
casual-wear and home décor that customers want in this pandemic
year, said MKM Partners analyst Roxanne Meyer. Other key trends
have been improvements in technology that have helped retailers
manage inventories, get products to customers and keep their
"That becomes a critical factor," she said. "This will be one of
those seasons that shows who's made the right investments."
Industry consolidation has also been a boon to the companies
that have managed to keep their doors open. Through last week,
there have been 134 bankruptcies of public companies or private
firms with public debt in the consumer space, according to data
from S&P Global Market Intelligence.
That includes well-known retailers J.C. Penney Co., Neiman
Marcus Group Inc., Stein Mart Inc., Brooks Brothers and Century 21
Department Stores LLC. In total, there have been 527 bankruptcies
in the U.S. this year, the highest number through mid-October since
In essence, what 2020 did was force a round of consolidation
within the retail industry that was years overdue, DataTrek's Mr.
Colas said. Although painful for the companies that went out of
business and employees who lost their jobs, for the survivors, it
represents a chance to compete for market share.
Consolidation is also good for investors, Mr. Colas said. "You
always want to own an industry coming out of a recession that's
gone through a significant consolidation," he said. "It's very
painful, but as far as what it means to the survivors, it's a
Other investors appear to be betting on the benefits of another
round of government support.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin
remain in negotiations over a new stimulus package. An agreement
could come after the election, Mrs. Pelosi has suggested, meaning
stimulus checks might arrive in time for the holidays.
What's unclear is whether consumers would spend the extra money.
The first round of stimulus checks helped boost retail sales, but
many Americans sacked that money away and the personal savings rate
hit a record 32% in April.
To be sure, headwinds still abound in the sector. Profits remain
under pressure. The S&P 500's consumer discretionary sector is
expected to post a 33% profit contraction in third-quarter
earnings, according to FactSet. The staples sector is seen boosting
profits by 1%.
And industry consolidation is just getting started, Ms. Meyer of
MKM Partners said. Gap plans to reduce the number of stores it
operates in North America by 30% by the end of 2023. GameStop, Bed
Bath & Beyond Inc., American Eagle Outfitters Inc. and
Victoria's Secret parent L Brands Inc. all intend to close more
stores in coming years.
"There's a lot more that needs to come out of the system," she
said. "Unfortunately, the pandemic accelerated what was ultimately
going to happen anyway."
Write to Paul Vigna at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 25, 2020 10:14 ET (14:14 GMT)
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