On Tuesday, consumer electronics retailer Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) reported its third-quarter results, and joined the list of big-box chains declining to provide any financial guidance for the holiday quarter. Target (NYSE:TGT) and Walmart (NYSE:WMT) had already done the same, citing unprecedented uncertainty.

Major retail chains that have spent the past few years building up their online capabilities in their attempts to fend off Amazon.com have found themselves in relatively enviable positions during the COVID-19 pandemic as consumers have accelerated their shift to e-commerce. Best Buy reported a whopping 174% rise in U.S. online sales in the third quarter; Target and Walmart posted 155% and 79% online growth, respectively.

Some retailers benefited from consumers' panic buying and stocking-up behavior early in the pandemic. Others, like Best Buy, got a boost as people snapped up computers and other electronic gear to support their ability to work and learn from home. The $2 trillion CARES Act passed by Congress in March provided some of the cash that fueled that spending.

Now, as the pandemic rapidly worsens again and threatens to make a return to lockdown measures necessary across much of the country, a combination of renewed panic buying and early holiday shopping is helping drive further robust sales growth for the largest retailers.

What happens next is anybody's guess.

A person shrugging with a question mark bag over head.

Image source: Getty Images.

Nobody knows

On the one hand, there's good reason for consumers to be optimistic right now: Three different coronavirus vaccines have been shown to be highly effective at preventing people from getting infected with COVID-19. The widespread availability of these vaccines sometime next year should mark the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

But there will be a lot of forces working against that optimism this holiday season. People are still losing their jobs at an elevated rate: The Department of Labor reported 742,000 new unemployment insurance claims for the week that ended Nov. 14, an increase from the previous week.

The unemployment situation could get much worse this winter, especially for those industries that have been most deeply affected by the necessities of social distancing. Restaurants that have clung to life throughout the pandemic may finally be forced to throw in the towel, particularly as outdoor dining becomes less viable across much of the country.

There's also the issue of housing uncertainty. According to a recent Census Bureau survey, 5.8 million U.S. adults believe they are at least somewhat likely to face eviction or foreclosure in the next two months. As Bloomberg pointed out, that amounts to about one-third of all adults who are currently behind on their rent or mortgage payments. The CDC's nationwide moratorium on many residential evictions expires on Dec. 31.

Another round of direct economic stimulus would help people make ends meet, but it's unclear if anything significant will pass Congress before the Biden administration begins on Jan. 20. Even then, a potentially divided Congress could hinder and delay the process.

For retailers, it makes a lot of sense to not even attempt to forecast sales this holiday season. While those people who aren't experiencing housing or employment insecurity may be in the mood to spend freely with the end of the pandemic in sight, those whose finances are on rockier ground may be more frugal as they prepare for a tough winter. The National Retail Federation has forecast holiday retail sales growth of 3.6% to 5.2%, but that prediction was based on assumptions that may not bear out.

Best Buy, Walmart, and Target have had incredible runs so far this year as their sales soared. That pattern may well continue through the holiday season, but with so many variables in play, investors need to be prepared for just about anything.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.