Retailers Ready for the Gift Card Redo

Now that the presents are put away, it's time to kick back and wait for the bacchanalia known as St. Patrick's Day. Or perhaps it's time to see how retailers are set to benefit from a gift-giving trend in January.

Maybe so
Did you forget those gift cards you stuffed into the stockings last year? According to figures from the International Council of Shopping Centers, chain-store sales for the week ended Jan. 2 rose 1.5% from the last week of Christmas shopping, and were 2.5% higher than the year-ago period.

Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE: WMT  ) is one retailer that says half the mothers who shop its stores enjoy receiving gift cards so they can use them on post-Christmas sales.

Post-holiday blues?
December has already brought us some winning numbers. Consumer electronics sales bounced 7.3% compared with December 2008, meaning Best Buy (NYSE: BBY  ) will likely bring home some holiday cheer this year, and jewelry sales were up 6.9%. Combine that with e-commerce sales jumping nearly 18% year over year, and it's reasonable to expect that online jeweler Blue Nile (Nasdaq: NILE  ) will post some post-Christmas baubles for investors.

That online sales statistic, though, is really a verdict on the popularity and strength of Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) , which owned 2009.

Retailers have been expecting the Christmas splurge to come later and later for several years, as weary consumers wait for the last possible minute to wrangle the best deal and save cash. We know Black Friday sales were slack, and with unemployment still at double-digit levels, consumers remain cautious when it comes to spending money.

A gift that keeps on giving
After several years of growth led to the holiday season extending well into January -- and beyond -- some analysts estimated that gift-card sales would fall 4.4% in 2009, to $87 billion. A mid-December survey by America's Research Group suggested that only 49% of shoppers had bought a gift card during the holidays, down from 53% a year ago.

But retailers were careful with their inventories this year. Wal-Mart carried 4% less stock going into the season despite having 10% more stores, while Gap (NYSE: GPS  ) inventories were down 10%. Bed Bath & Beyond (Nasdaq: BBBY  ) ended the third quarter with 6% more stores but 3% less inventory.

While other retailers were equally parsimonious in stocking their shelves, when a snowstorm hit the Northeast just before the holiday, sales on "Super Saturday," generally the second-best revenue day, fell 17.3%. Bare shelves and weather-related delays mean gift cards may be what steps up to save the season for retailers.

Christmas in January, February ...
I'm looking for Best Buy to be one of the big winners. Its gift card sales jumped 40% in November, with sales doubling during the last weekend of the month. More importantly -- and it's why retailers love gift cards -- Best Buy says consumers typically spend twice the value of the cards when they finally redeem them. Analysts are looking for the chain's domestic same-store sales in December to increase an extra 250 to 300 basis points as a result. The chain also doesn't have Circuit City to kick around anymore.

We're entering a time when companies will be lapping some very weak sales numbers. Other retail outlets don't even have to experience redemption rates on gift cards anywhere near Best Buy's for us to see some very good quarterly numbers. Indeed, analysts say people end up spending on average 25% to 50% more than the value of their gift card. Whatever the extra amount, that bodes well for retailers.

A spring in their step
Not every retailer will be a winner, gift cards or not. The recession damaged many good names such as Macy's (NYSE: M  ) , which is saddled with substantial debt and continues to close underperforming stores. It shuttered nine in 2008 and 11 in 2009, and has announced five more closings this month. Investors should stick with those companies that have strong brands, clean balance sheets, and lots of cash. I've already said Best Buy is one of those I think will excel, but there are plenty of other good opportunities out there.

Let's turn it over to you. Which retailers will you go back to this year? Let us know in the comments section below.

Best Buy and Wal-Mart are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Blue Nile is a Rule Breakers pick. Amazon.com, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Best Buy are Stock Advisor selections. The Fool has a financial position in Best Buy. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not have a financial position in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On January 06, 2010, at 3:59 PM, TMFKris wrote:

    "Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE: WMT) is one retailer that says half the mothers who shop its stores enjoy receiving gift cards so they can use them on post-Christmas sales."

    What an odd statistic to track; just on mothers. I enjoy gift cards to use on post-Christmas sales (who doesn't) even though I don't have kids. Or is it just the post-Xmas sales of Xmas-related items, since WMT doesn't really have sales? Jalapeno-flavored candy canes, anyone? Hannah Montana ornaments?

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