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The Grinch may steal holiday cheer from these consumer tech companies

By Therese Poletti

The Grinch is expected to steal some holiday cheer for several consumer-focused tech companies, in what is normally their strongest quarter.

This earnings season, investors were surprised by some grim forecasts of slower growth from a range of tech companies with big consumer businesses: Apple Inc. (AAPL), Etsy Inc. (ETSY), Airbnb Inc. (ABNB), eBay Inc. (EBAY) and Inc. (AMZN). Each of these companies, with the exception of Airbnb, usually posts their biggest revenue of the year in the December quarter, fueled largely by the holiday shopping season.

But this year, consumers have continued to be more more nervous about spending, as inflation and higher interest rates are taking a toll on their wallets. Even with Tuesday's positive news of flat inflation data for October and hopes that rate hikes are at an end, the interest rates that consumers will face for holiday purchases on credit cards are still high.

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"From a customer-behavior standpoint, we still see customers remaining cautious about price, trading down where they can and seeking out deals, coupled with lower spending on discretionary items," Amazon Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky told analysts late last month. Amazon's fourth-quarter revenue forecast came in lighter than Wall Street expected.

Other online retailers, such as eBay and Etsy, also see slowing sales, with eBay pointing to emerging softness in some European markets, such as Germany and the U.K., and Etsy calling the macroeconomy "volatile."

"There's no doubt that this is an incredibly challenging environment for spending on consumer discretionary items," said Etsy CEO Josh Silverman. "It's therefore important to acknowledge that the volatile macro climate is going to make it challenging for us to grow this quarter."

In general, consumer demand or spending issues were the dominant disappointment of the quarter, while many enterprise-focused tech companies were buoyed by spending on artificial intelligence and building out their data centers to handle more processing of AI.

"It was a better-than-expected earnings season, not if you consider top-line beats, lots of the tech names surpassed on the top and bottom line," said Christine Short, vice president of strategy at Wall Street Horizons. "It was the commentary that threw me off."

Apple surprised Wall Street with its lackluster forecast for the December quarter, guiding for a fiscal first quarter "similar" to its October quarter, in which revenue fell less than 1%. And that was for a quarter that included some new iPhone 15 sales. Its revenue could even potentially fall in the December quarter. Bernstein Research analyst Toni Sacconaghi said in a recent note that he is expecting a "muted iPhone cycle" this year, and is forecasting iPhone sales will be down 3.5% for the fiscal 2024 full year.

This year's holiday spending is expected to come close to last year's results, according to a forecast issued by Circana, formerly the NPD Group, late last month. But the research firm added that overall spending may fall short by as much as 2.5% in the November-December timeframe.

Additionally, a survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers by McKinsey & Co. showed 79% are changing behaviors, buying lower-cost items or foregoing purchases entirely. "General consumer sentiment about the U.S. economy is one of uncertainty," the market-research firm said.

Some credit-card companies are giving mixed signals. Last month, Mastercard (MA), while highlighting "continued resilience in consumer spending" in the third quarter, also reported a sequential growth slowdown in October, rattling investors.

The ongoing Israel-Hamas war is also fueling uncertainties. For advertisers on consumer internet platforms, such as Meta's (META) Facebook, Instagram and Snap Inc. (SNAP), the conflict is causing "greater uncertainties" and "volatility." Meta warned of softer ad spending in the fourth quarter.

As the large retailers report third-quarter results this week, investors will continue to focus on their forecasts, especially after Home Depot Inc. (HD) had a mixed call on Tuesday. Executives said that while the "worst of the inflationary environment may be behind us," they still pointed to consumers staying away from certain "big-ticket items," and working on smaller home projects, rather than taking on bigger costly ones.

Electric-vehicle maker Tesla Inc. (TSLA) Chief Executive Elon Musk was uncharacteristically gloomy on the company's most recent earnings call, talking about how he was worried about how the high-interest-rate environment would affect the car-buying public.

Are all the cautious CEOs just sandbagging, and hoping to blow out their fourth quarters? Or at least exceed their "meh" expectations?

"They are all trying to mange expectations, under-promise and over-deliver," said Short of Wall Street Horizons. "You are seeing analysts draw down expectations for the fourth quarter." She pointed out that in October, estimates came down 4%, versus the typical 1% to 2%. "This quarter, Q3, we have had the highest number of CEOs who were more uncertain than they have been since they were in the middle of the pandemic."

So while next year should look brighter -- especially if the Fed begins to lower rates, as some are now predicting -- this holiday season could be a bleak one for many consumer-focused tech companies.

-Therese Poletti

This content was created by MarketWatch, which is operated by Dow Jones & Co. MarketWatch is published independently from Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal.


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11-18-23 1612ET

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