In retail circles this holiday season, there's a running joke about sales trends -- minus 10 is the new flat.
Some businesses and categories are said to tracking negative 20 or 30 percent. But at this point, with calendar shifts supposedly delaying shopping and until the December comparable-store sales figures get reported Jan. 8, it's hard to figure the depths of retailers' despair.
Further obfuscating matters is their bury-your-head-in-the-sand attitude. Most no longer give the kind of weekly updates they provided to WWD and other media in past years during the homestretch from Thanksgiving to New Year's. Directives from the executive suites instruct merchants at all levels not to discuss trends or results. When asked, store executives say "no comment" and advise journalists to wait for the regular monthly and quarterly reports for some insight. If they talk at all, typically it's not for attribution. It's now largely up to the Wall Street pundits and market research firms to provide the commentary, much of which is anecdotal and focused on mall traffic.
You could say retailers have good reason to be reticent. There are no real hot items to discuss and certainly no strong fashion trends. Necessities and basics are the order of the day. Everything else is clearance, which is not the image retailers or their suppliers want to project. Even Wal-Mart, which is currently faring better than other retailers, discontinued its weekly sales postings this season.
There's more to it. Up until around Thanksgiving, retail executives were refreshingly candid discussing their woes amid the consumer pullback, bracing investors for possible losses or lowered earnings. The media pounced, and widespread reports reflected the gloom. Some retailers believe the negative media compounded the dark mood, raised fears about job cuts and scared consumers from shopping. With just a few days left until Christmas, including the year's biggest volume day, the Saturday before, retailers don't want to risk further depressing the consumer -set. They're letting the coupons do the talking.
Next year, expect a different scenario about a different topic -- layoffs. They're likely to be widespread, from the luxury sector down to discounters, and in cases where payrolls get slashed, it's one discussion retailers can't duck.
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