Santa slacked off during the holidays, delivering a solidly so-so season for retailers.
Shoppers were less impressed and more careful during the season compared with the previous one, doing their research before picking through shelves of uninspiring and often deeply discounted merchandise, according to a flurry of data, estimates and analyst notes released this week.
Consumers spent $265.9 billion at stores during November and December, causing sales to rise 2.7 percent from a year earlier, according to initial results from data firm ShopperTrak. That’s slower than the 3 percent growth rate seen the previous year.
Black Friday led the rest of the season in revenue and traffic, even though the day’s proceeds sank 13 percent from the prior year as longer opening hours on Thanksgiving sucked away sales.
Christmas week, which ended Dec. 28, was the busiest even though most stores were closed Christmas Day. The week, which included four of the season’s top 10 busiest days, garnered 15.5 percent of all holiday revenue and 16 percent of visits.
But as sales rose for the holidays, foot traffic slid 14.6 percent, ShopperTrak said.
The shorter season, with just 25 days between Black Friday and Christmas compared to 31 days a year earlier, meant that companies had one fewer weekend to rope in shoppers.
Physical retailers were also stymied by extreme weather in early December that kept many shoppers at home browsing websites for gifts. Although the “overwhelming majority” of retail sales will continue to come from bricks-and-mortar establishments, ShopperTrak noted that many shoppers are now also studying items online before going into stores.
A separate report from analytics firm Custora found that e-commerce sales in November and December grew 12 percent from the same months in 2012, with mobile sales booming 50 percent. Custora called online shopping “the shining star in a lukewarm holiday retail environment.”
The pattern of higher sales and fewer visits was repeated across several product categories and geographical regions, according to ShopperTrak. In the western part of the country, sales in stores rose 5.1 percent as the number of shoppers slumped 12.1 percent.
In electronics, revenue was up 4.8 percent, while visits dived 12.9 percent. Revenue swelled 3.5 percent for apparel and accessories merchants as foot traffic slipped 0.6 percent.
Macy’s Inc. said its sales at stores open at least a year rose 3.6 percent during the holiday season, and 4.3 percent when including departments licensed to third parties.
J.C. Penney Co. said Wednesday that it is “pleased with its performance for the holiday period.” The company, which has struggled with an identity crisis in recent years, said it is “showing continued progress in its turnaround efforts.”
The retailer reaffirmed its forecast from November, in which it predicted that sales at stores open more than a year would “improve sequentially” in the fourth quarter along with gross margin.
Analysts mostly deemed the overall season to be ho-hum.
“A Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday it was not for many mall-based retailers,” RBC Capital Markets analyst Howard Tubin wrote in a note to clients. Discounts were deeper and began earlier, and even brands that normally refrain from dangling deals began offering bargains, Tubin said.
His outlook for spring is cautious, he wrote, noting that shoppers “have been trained and are now likely looking for these aggressive discounts to continue.” One benefit from the season? Low inventory levels, Tubin said.
“The rampant discounting and purging of winter and Holiday product should leave the channel clean of carry-over and ready to receive new spring merchandise,” he wrote.