Christmas holiday discounts have become a ritual of U.S. retailing, with shoppers lining up outside malls on the day after Thanksgiving hoping to snag a deal for $19 air fryers or cheap flatscreen TVs. Even during the pandemic, the traditional yearend dash for deals continued, as shoppers accustomed to price cuts of up to 40% simply shifted to ordering online. But U.S. retailers are making a risky bet this holiday season by cutting back on discounting.
Their calculation is a simple one. Many merchants are forecasting demand to be strong, while gummed up supply chains translate into having less inventory to sell. That means there’s no need to be as promotional as during Christmases past.
While it makes sense on paper, the strategy has plenty of risks. After cutting back at the height of Covid-19, Americans have splurged this year, and sales growth estimates for the holiday season range from 6% to about 10% from 2020. But now shoppers are facing rising costs for basics such as food, gasoline, and energy. Year-over-year inflation rose 6.2% in October, the largest increase since 1990.
Inflation worries have also driven down consumer confidence. And spending could be muted by surging transportation costs that have limited the selection of goods at many chains by making some items too expensive to ship. One toymaker said there wouldn’t be as many bulky stuffed animals and toy trucks on shelves, because companies were reserving whatever precious cargo space they could secure for their highest-margin goods.
“This is going to be an unpredictable season,” says Craig Johnson, chief executive officer of researcher Customer Growth Partners. The one-two punch of higher energy costs and supply chain disruptions could restrain discretionary spending by $56 billion in November and December, he says. “You have these wild cards. No one really knows what will happen.”
Heading into Black Friday, on Nov. 26, discounts on electronics, sporting goods, and appliances are shallower than last year, according to Adobe Inc., which compared year-over-year changes in online prices from Oct. 1 to Nov. 6.
Despite earlier-than-normal promotions this year, discounts are weaker across several categories, Adobe concluded. Those include electronics, where discounts are at 8.7%, compared with 13.2% at this point in 2020; and sporting goods, where price cutting is only 2.8% this year vs. 11.2% a year ago. And for some categories, such as tools, bargains have disappeared entirely.
This show of merchants’ potential pricing power prompted Mastercard SpendingPulse, which analyzes credit card transactions, to call this holiday season a “seller’s market for retailers.” Yet inflation worries are making Americans more “deal hungry” than usual, according to Claire Tassin, an analyst for researcher Morning Consult.
Retailers are also trying to get consumers to check off their Christmas lists even earlier, when inventories are highest and chains can avoid disappointing buyers with sellouts or shipping delays later in the season.
It’s also a way for retailers to sell more goods closer to full price—before the largest discounts traditionally start in mid-November—and when shipping costs are lower for merchants. This season big retailers such as Amazon.com Inc. and Target Corp. have gone further, trumpeting Black Friday-like deals in early October.
That push coincided with Americans waking up to the fact that the global supply chain was a mess. In October, U.S. online shoppers received 2 billion out-of-stock messages, according to a study by Adobe. The share of e-commerce page views that showed out-of-stock goods was a third higher than last year and 300% more than 2019.
Add to that consumers turning on evening newscasts and seeing scenes of cargo ships stuck in floating traffic jams off West Coast ports. In mid-October the White House increased attention by calling for countermeasures, including running shipping terminals 24 hours a day. “We’re going to help speed up the delivery of goods, all across America,” President Joe Biden said at the time.
“Last year consumers knew about supply chain issues, but the difference this year is that those concerns are more intensified,” says Gabriella Santaniello, founder of retail consultant A-Line Partners. “That pushed retailers to warn shoppers to start purchasing holiday gifts sooner than expected to avoid any disappointment.”
Toys are selling faster, according to Mattel Inc., maker of Barbie and Hot Wheels. Apple Inc. is running a red banner on its website instructing customers to shop early for the best selection. United Parcel Service Inc. said an increase in early purchases has led some experts to predict that 50% of holiday shopping could be done by the Monday after Thanksgiving.
Half of U.S. consumers said they’d started their holiday shopping by the second week of October, according to a survey by Morning Consult. That sounds impressive, but it’s similar to 2020, when Americans worried about delays at shipping companies such as FedEx Corp. and UPS. “It’s really hard to change human behavior,” Morning Consult’s Tassin says. “We all have our habits.”
If retailers fail to boost early shopping, more out-of-stocks later in the season could hurt results. In early October about half of Americans said they had already experienced a product being sold out online or in a store, according to another Morning Consult survey. And when faced with an item not being available, 52% said in a later survey that they would skip the purchase completely, not even trying to find a replacement.
Still, Americans are known as the biggest spenders on the planet. If they live up to that reputation despite this year’s hurdles, it would be a much-needed boost for the retail sector, especially the battered department stores. Promoting less and still hitting sales goals will boost profits. And come January tighter inventories mean fewer items to liquidate, lifting results again.
“Consumers are flush with cash, and they’re not spending as much on travel and dining out—they’re spending on goods,” says Brian Yarbrough, a retail analyst at Edward Jones. “Retailers are probably in the best position coming into this holiday season than they’ve been in many years.”