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Holiday Sales Better Than a Lump of Coal

Jason Stipp
Robert Johnson, CFA

Jason Stipp: I'm Jason Stipp for Morningstar.

A couple of metrics this week may have some folks worried about the health of the consumer and the holiday shopping season. Here to offer his take on the data is Morningstar's Bob Johnson, our director of economic analysis.

Thanks for joining me, Bob.

Bob Johnson: Great to be here.

Stipp: We got a couple of pieces of data about the consumer this week. They didn't look so hot, but you said they might not really be indicative of the actual health of the consumer right now. The first one was from MasterCard [Advisors SpendingPulse], and it showed really weak year-over-year holiday sales.

Johnson: Yes.

Stipp: What was that data?

Johnson: That data is compiled from individual [transactions], when you swipe your card, what goes back to MasterCard, and they survey the data, and then extrapolate. And frankly, their numbers didn't make a lot of sense, but they said during the holiday period--which they calculate from Oct. 28, which is kind of when Sandy started to hit, through the day past Christmas--that sales were only up 0.7%, and there were screams all over the place yesterday, "worst Christmas since 2007," "disaster hits [consumers]" … but I don't believe a word of it.

Stipp: You said that this data doesn't pass the smell test, and there is one big reason that, I guess, smells the most, and that's online sales. It didn't look like it could be accurate in this MasterCard report.

Johnson: I don't know what it is, [maybe] people used PayPal or something [else] has messed up the [MasterCard] numbers, but here is the deal. [Internet] retail sales in this report were only up 8%. Every other report that I have seen suggests somewhere between the neighborhood of 14% to 16% growth year-over-year in online sales. The [MasterCard] number is wrong by a factor of half, and even if Amazon was the only guy out there, which is a big part of the number, and they are growing 30%, I'm still already over 10% before anything else grows. So, I'm really concerned that that number may be part of what's messing it up.

Stipp: You also said that this report last year ended up being a little bit light compared with the other data on the holiday shopping season in 2011.

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Johnson: If you looked at the [International Council of Shopping Center] data, the National Federation of Retailers, or even the government's retail sales report, [MasterCard] reported [2011 holiday retail sales growth of] kind of 2%-ish, mid-2%; it was certainly light compared to some of the other metrics that showed more like a 3%-4% growth, may be even 5% in some metrics. So, this number has come in light before, and this is not one that anybody seems to care much about except at the holiday season. It doesn't seem to correlate very well with a lot of other numbers. It's kind of fun, once in a while, I look at [MasterCard's] category-sales data, jewelry is stronger than furniture, or whatever. But certainly it's not a very good predictor of the overall retail sales number.

Stipp: It's not the only piece of data that we get for retail sales. Others report retail sales data in the holiday shopping season, and one of them was the National Federation of Retailers, and their number, they had to bring it in a little bit, which also could cause some concern about the health of the consumer.

Johnson: Right. I think they are now at a number that looks more like 3% year-over-year growth in holiday sales, and they were probably a little bit closer to 4% before. So they have brought their numbers in, and certainly Sandy hit the first few weeks of the holiday period pretty hard, and some people are now saying that maybe it all didn't come back at the end. It really couldn't. So that's certainly part of the thinking in their numbers. But again, that 3%, even if it's a flat 3%, is considerably higher than the scare tactics that are coming out of the MasterCard data that we saw.

Stipp: And there are a few issues that could cause these reports to vary. You mentioned the measurement period, so depending on how much of that Sandy period the different reports capture, that could have an effect on the data.

There are a couple of other things, though, that could be messing with the data a little bit. Layaway is one of those. How does that affect the data if we see more layaways?

Johnson: Well, if you do a layaway sale, you are going to tend to pay that off with cash, and not necessarily a credit card. And layaway sales don't get recognized--even though people have allocated for them many months before--they don't get counted until they are actually paid off and delivered to the customer.

And gift cards are certainly another area that's gone up over time. It's a bigger portion of the data. Imagine iTunes [gift cards] … think about how well those are doing this year. So there's a number of those gift card-type things that aren't fully in the numbers and aren't incorporated either that we will see a little bit later when we get the official government report. And they even seem to be showing up a little bit in the International Council of Shopping Center data, which you know I track so closely.

Stipp: And what about the measurement period? Is it possible some of these reports aren't capturing that last-minute Christmas Eve shopping?

Johnson: Well, I did mention that I do like the International Council of Shopping Centers data, and that indicates that we are up about 3.3% year-over-year. So a little bit higher than what the Federation says. And frankly, [the International Council of Shopping Centers] are saying that they still think we can get to 4%. And the reason they think we can get to 4% is because Christmas Eve fell on a Monday this year. So that puts Christmas Eve in the last week of the year versus last year Christmas Eve was a Saturday, and so it went in the last period, and yet we still were able to show 3.3% on a moving average basis [in the ICSC data].

So, that's a great number. I've gotten used to working with the International Council of Shopping Center data. I'm less familiar with the MasterCard data. It just doesn't seem as reliable to me. So, I'm going with the International Council that we will do something like 3.5% to 4% for the holiday season.

Stipp: So, 4% might be a little aggressive, but definitely you are seeing something like 3.5% to 4%, much higher than what the MasterCard data would suggest.

And lastly, when you just look at the overall health of the consumer, they actually had some tailwinds, and potential tailwinds in the future, that should support that 3.5% to 4% growth.

Johnson: Yes, I think that's an important thing to keep in mind, and another reason why the 0.7% doesn't make any sense.

Number one was, for the month of November, consumer incomes were up 0.8% in a month--that annualizes to almost 10%. So incomes, mainly because of falling gasoline prices and a little bit of wages and some employment, we came up with a huge [increase], probably the best of the recovery type of number in income [in November]. So consumers have more money to spend, gasoline prices are now pretty close to the lowest level of the year, trailing down all during the month of November and December, putting more money in consumers' pockets. So that's really good news.

And housing prices: We got the Case-Shiller data this week. We are up over 4% on over-over-year growth in home prices. It looks like it will be closer to 5% or 6% for the full year, and that's wonderful. And that's one of the things that's really going to give the consumer a lot of confidence.

Stipp: So, it looks like when all the data comes in, we should have a decent holiday shopping season--certainly not as bad as the MasterCard data would suggest. No reason to panic on the consumer front.

Johnson: Exactly.

Stipp: All right, Bob. Thanks for joining me.

For Morningstar, I'm Jason Stipp. Thanks for watching.