Ho! Ho! Ho! Sears Holdings (Nasdaq: SHLD ) has decided that a Christmas season extending from Halloween to Dec. 25 just wasn't long enough. So the company has created an online boutique called "Christmas Lane," and it's developing a store-within-a-store concept that will sell holiday items through July at 372 Sears stores.
But will Santa save Sears?
Market researchers at Nielsen Online think the retailer will be able to generate some positive buzz from this effort, but I see it as a desperation move to juice sales, which are falling more dramatically than expected.
Dreaming of a black Christmas
Christmas is the key sales season for retailers. They bank on its success, because Christmas sales can account for as much as 20% to 30% of a retailer's annual revenue. There's a reason the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday, even if it is a marketing gimmick that's been missing the all-important "black" part lately.
So Sears might have good reason to try to get a head start on the competition -- especially this year. According to BigResearch, more than one-third of all shoppers say they're going to spend less on Christmas this year than they did in 2008.
Shop early, shop often
As part of its push, Sears is trying to coax unwilling buyers with its newly resurrected layaway program. The chain is offering especially generous deals on higher-priced items, such as home appliances, lawn and garden items, and tools -- the items most closely aligned with the crummy housing market. The first-quarter drop in comps was directly attributable to a decline in pushing those items out the door. Home-focused retailers have felt the same crunch: Home Depot (NYSE: HD ) , for example, watched its comps plunge by 10.2% in the first quarter. Maybe it's time for a Christmas sale at Home Depot.
The risk for Sears, though, is that it may alienate customers who are tired of the already-extended holiday season. The chain's Christmas-in-July promotion offers customers nothing they don't already have available to them, should they want to buy. And given Sears' lackluster performance, it can't afford to anger customers. Comps have faced a frightening string of declines for years. Last quarter, comps were off by a staggering 7.4%.
The Christmas Tree Shops chain, owned by Bed Bath & Beyond (Nasdaq: BBBY ) , might offer the ultimate year-round holiday-hawking extravaganza. But even this company knows enough to not cram trees and ornaments down shoppers' throats all the time. And, of course, other retailers frequently roll out "Christmas in July" sales. Toys "R" Us ran a weeklong promotion at the beginning of the month doing just that, and Nordstrom (NYSE: JWN ) perennially gets rid of cold-weather apparel during a big summer sale.
Shares of Sears Holdings have risen by 68% so far this year, better than those of Kohl's (NYSE: KSS ) , J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP ) , or Macy's (NYSE: M ) . Even if there's little financial risk in its Christmas-in-July ploy that might cause the stock to stumble, it still jingles loudly as a sign that there will be lumps of coal in investors' stockings later on this year.