There’s still hope for the holiday season after all

Holiday shoppers at a Target store in Culver City, California.

Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images
Holiday shoppers at a Target store in Culver City, California.

Don’t call the holiday shopping season a bust just yet.

Just days after a slew of retail reports indicated the Christmas selling period may not have lived up to raised expectations, new data released Monday shows that sales increased as expected in November and December.

According to First Data, which pulled its figures from more than 942,000 cash registers, retail spending increased 3.6 percent during the holiday period — in line with a forecast from the National Retail Federation.

The lift was driven by a boon in online shopping, which grew 12 percent. Spending at traditional bricks-and-mortar locations also ticked higher, at a more modest 1.6 percent. When factoring in non-retail spending, including travel and leisure, spending increased 4.7 percent excluding gas, according to First Data.

The findings are in line with consumers’ spending recent patterns, as analysts worried that a more confident group of shoppers would benefit companies focused on an experience more than traditional retailers. According to First Data, the best performing retail categories were building materials; electronic and appliance shops; and health and personal care stores.

General merchandise shops fared the worst, primarily due to declining department store sales. At department stores, sales contracted 4.8 percent. Clothing and accessories stores also struggled, with sales coming in roughly flat.

First Data’s report is largely lines up with early reports retailers have released over the past week. Both Kohl’s and Macy’s said same-store sales fell 2.1 percent in November and December, while Sears reported another double-digit decline. At J.C. Penney, they fell 0.8 percent.

Results have been more mixed among specialty apparel stores. Whereas Victoria’s Secret parent L Brands logged its first negative comparable-store sales result since January, Lululemon on Monday raised the low end of its fourth-quarter sales and earnings guidance, crediting “a strong holiday season in both our store and digital channels.” Gap also came in as a surprise winner, thanks to its Old Navy brand.

But on Monday, Urban Outfitters‘ shares took a dive when the specialty shop said comparable sales rose 1.5 percent, but its gross margin came in lower than expected.

Broadly speaking, analysts had grown more optimistic about the holiday season as the clock wound down, and a late-season push drove crowds to the malls.

The Commerce Department will release December sales Friday, followed by full season results from NRF shortly after.

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