Preliminary data on the holiday spending spree is starting to trickle in, and the headlines are not pretty. The Wall Street Journal called sales during that all-important period "weak." It might have been the slowest holiday growth for retailers since the recession in 2008, the Journal says. The New York Times is just as gloomy, concluding that "shoppers stay[ed] home" this season, maybe thanks to worries over the fiscal cliff.
Retail stocks were hammered on the news, with RadioShack (NYSE: RSH ) falling by 4%, and Sears (NASDAQ: SHLD ) , GameStop (NYSE: GME ) , and Nike (NYSE: NKE ) dropping by more than 2%. Coach (NYSE: COH ) took a 6% hit, to become the S&P 500's biggest loser for Dec. 26.
The lump-of-coal theory on retail sales stems mostly from MasterCard's SpendingPulse survey on total holiday spending. That analysis showed that revenue only rose by 0.7% this year, as compared to the 2% rise the firm found in 2011. "It's a lost season," SpendingPulse executive Michael McNamara told the Journal.
But let's not get too carried away. SpendingPulse isn't the only company tracking holiday sales figures. The National Retail Federation also follows holiday sales numbers. And that group came up with a much different projection, forecasting a 4.1% rise in sales on the year. That would still be down from the 5.6% gain it found last year. But that slowdown is nowhere near the sales cliff that MasterCard is envisioning.
Then there's the survey from comScore, which follows online spending each year too. The company projects a solid 16% rise in e-tailing this holiday, which would be anything but disappointing. In fact, online spending had a banner season, according to the firm, with 12 individual days accounting for more than $1 billion in sales.
So why does MasterCard's analysis stand out from the rest? A company spokesperson told CNBC that the difference comes from two big factors.
First, MasterCard's survey includes the week of retail figures affected by Superstorm Sandy, where sales were deeply depressed by store closings along the East Coast. Second, the survey takes a narrower look at "holiday related" retail sales, and doesn't include other nondiscretionary retail sectors like grocery stores and restaurants.
Add that back in, and "it is possible that total retail (ex-auto) that includes all the non discretionary sectors could be up north of 3%," MasterCard says. All of a sudden, things aren't looking quite so gloomy for the retail space.
But even beyond the quirks about any particular forecast, the fact is that many individual retailers could post strong results even in the face of a disappointing industrywide trend. Nike just last week reported a 7% rise in revenue that powered an 11% earnings boost. And that was in the middle of a tough global retail environment for clothing. GameStop, which is stuck in the most depressing cycle for video game sales in years, has rallied to end the year, and could return to comparable same-store sales growth this quarter.
And while the holiday season is crucial for many retailers, the bigger picture is much more important. RadioShack and Sears saw sales declines for several quarters straight, and they both booked a 2% fall in the third quarter. Even solid outperformance over the holiday by these two struggling retailers wouldn't be enough to label their turnarounds complete.
The selling pressure on Sears and RadioShack can be justified, given the issues that need to be worked out with their business models. But dumping quality retailers based on a broad holiday forecast sounds like classic market overreaction to me.
Out of the group above, I think Coach has been the most unfairly punished by the market. The company reported a 5.5% boost in sales in North America and a strong double-digit jump in international sales last quarter. And yet shares are closing the year on a 30% slide. That drop has pushed the P/E ratio to 15, a level Coach investors haven't seen since 2009. Yes, profits have been pinched at the luxury retailer. And this year's holiday sales could have grown at a (slightly) slower pace than last year. But those seem like terrible reasons to sell a growing retailer that boasts a strong global brand.
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