10 Clues About 2013 Holiday Spending

Tyler Durden's picture

From consumer and retailer surveys to quantitative data such as household spending and private jet bookings, ConvergEx's Nick Colas has amassed a collection of 10 clues about this year's holiday shopping season. On the plus side, disposable personal income and consumer spending on discretionary items are rising, and travel to Palm Beach via private jet is quite popular this Christmas season. However, consumer confidence surveys are particularly weak, and consumer debt has ballooned to a 5-year high. Roughly equal parts good and bad, Colas' collection of holiday spending indicators points to a mediocre (at best) 2013 shopping season (as we noted earlier).

Via ConvergEX's Nick Colas,

There are conflicting projections out there, so it's hard to know on which to rely, but when in doubt go with the National Federation of Retailers (NRF) gauge. They have the season pegged for a 3.9% positive comp to last year. While the NRF has been overly conservative in prior years, our indicators actually point to a weaker Holiday 2013: something closer to a 1-2% seems more realistic. Even a negative reading wouldn't be a surprise.

Note from Nick: Only 30 days until Christmas Day, and some of the most important for the U.S. economy. Today Beth goes through the key drivers of consumer spending to baseline how much holiday shoppers will spend versus last year. Bottom line: it may not be the 'Most wonderful time of the year.' Read on for the Top 10 reasons why...

So far the only person I've checked off my Christmas shopping list is my dog, Floyd. He's got a candy cane collar and a monogrammed blue whale collar for after the holidays coming his way. I always intend to finish my shopping by now - as I've gotten older I've grown to resent Black Friday and the holiday shopping crowds, an activity for which I used to giddily set a 3am alarm - but it never seems to happen. f you're in the same boat, here's an useful list of some top gift ideas for 2013 from a variety of retailers (just in case you need another gift guide):   

  • Amazon: Cards Against Humanity, Twisted Bandz Rainbow Loom, Kindle Fire HD 7"
  • The Discovery Store: 1-Rex Slippers, Shark Week bottle opener
  • Macy's: Starbucks gift box, Jean Paul Gaultier "LE MALE" cologne, Michael Kors Hamilton tote
  • Audubon Institute: Adoption of an animal, tour of the elephant barn
  • Toys "R" Us: Sofia the First Royal Talking Vanity, "Despicable Me 2" Minions, Flutterbye Flying Fairy

I'm not sure what most of these are, but thankfully Best Buy has some more traditional suggestions: the PS4, the Xbox One and the iPhone. For the first time in 11 years, Thanksgiving fall as late as the calendar possibly allows, reducing this year's holiday season by 6 full days - and retailers are clearly taking note. You can't use the internet at the moment without being bombarded by gift ideas and promotional announcements. Huge retailers such as Wal-Mart, K-Mart and Macy's are under fire for cutting into family time by opening on Thanksgiving Day just to extend the shopping season by a few more hours. And consumers are responding as expected: 23.5% (or 33 million) of those who plan on shopping during Thanksgiving weekend will hit the stores Thursday before the turkey is even off the table, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation (NRF).

So how much will they spend? The most crucial question isn't who or when or where, after all - it's how much. And to answer it, we've compiled a top 10 list of clues for 2013's holiday shopping season. From consumer and retailer surveys to quantitative data such as personal spending/income and household debt, our collection encompasses the economics behind this year's shopping season. Read on for the details.

1) Disposable personal income is on the rise. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), real disposable personal income increased 4.5% in the 3rd quarter from the prior period, for the biggest Q3 jump since 2006. This compares to gains of 1.7% and 3.9% in the quarter immediately preceding the holiday shopping season in 2012 and 2011, respectively. So consumers theoretically have more to spend, but are they spending it?

 

2) The answer is yes - spending is also up. The BEA's data on personal consumption expenditures shows that core expenditures (excluding the food and energy components) were 2.1% higher in Q3 2013 versus Q3 2012 and 4.6% greater in Q3 2013 compared with Q3 2011. More importantly for the holiday shopping season, spending on discretionary items such as recreational goods and vehicles (a category that includes video, audio, and photographic equipment; sporting goods; and information processing equipment and media) was up 10.5% versus 2012 and 22.9% versus 2011. Strong spending patterns during the quarter immediately prior to the Christmas shopping season certainly bodes well for holiday spending.

 

3) The latest retail sales figures also support the case for increased spending habits. We combined sales figures from the government's most recent retail sales report for all of the retailers from which people are likely to purchase discretionary gifts (clothing, sporting, book, music, hobby and department stores). The total came to $42.3 billion, which is a post-Fnandal Oisis recovery peak and 1.3% higher than the year-ago month, as well as 4.0% higher than in October 2011.

 

4) As for the 1%, it seems they're doing just fine too. Private jet travel bookings are up more than 70% for the November 2013 and December 2013 holiday travel season, according to Sentient It (a Directional Aviation G3pital firm). The most popular holiday vacation destinations include Palm Beach, FL; Aspen, OD; and New York, NY.

 

5) An NRF survey predicts that total holiday spending will be up 3.9% this year. Americans reported plans to spend an average of $737 on gifts this year, or a total of $602 billion. Something to note, however. This survey occurred in early October, before the psychological headwind that was the partial government shutdown. Caution aside, however, the NRF has underestimated holiday spending for the past two years. In 2011 it projected per person spending at $704, but the actual number result was much higher - $741. Last year was a little closer - $749.50 projected versus $752 actual. This year's estimate of $737 is likely a safe bet.

 

6) A separate, more recent, survey noted that Americans plan to trim their spending habits this year. Gallup's most recent poll from November shows that consumer intend to shell out an average of $704 on holiday presents, down from $786 in the October poll and $770 in the November 2012 poll. Even the "20 percent" seem to be affected by economic uncertainty: For those earnings more than $75,000 per year, the average gift budget is $1,035 versus $1,122 a year ago.

 

7) Another study concurs. Morgan Stanley anticipates this will be the worst holiday season since 2008, with total gift spending per person down 2.5% from last year to $537, marking the first forecasted per capita spending decline in five years. The research predicts total holiday sales to rise 1.6% versus last year and attributes the increase to a greater number of shoppers in 2013.

 

8) Meanwhile, consumer debt is at a 5-year high. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that debt expanded 1.1% in the 3rd quarter to $11.28 trillion, the biggest quarterly jump since Q1 2008. Though this is below the peak of $12.68 trillion in the 3r1 quarter of 2008, it indicates that the near 5-year deleveraging pattern has perhaps come to an end. People are purchasing houses and cars in greater numbers, which runs the risk of crowding out spending on other items, such as gifts. Plus, additional debt isn't exactly a psychological "plus" for Christmas shopping.

 

9) Consumer confidence surveys support the notion of a psychologically-damaged consumer. The University of Michigan's consumer confidence index fell for a 4th consecutive month in November. Its current reading of 72.0 is well below the year-ago mark of 82.7, and its current expectations component stands at 62.3 versus the July peak of 76.5. Meanwhile, the Conference Board's consumer sentiment index currently stands at 71.2, compared with 72.2 in the year-ago month. f there is a bright spot here, it is gasoline prices. These can push confidence numbers higher or lower pretty quickly, and the trend is our friend on this count. Nationwide, gas prices currently average $3.24 versus $3.44 a year ago.

 

10) Lastly, the NRF projects seasonal hires to be roughly in line with 2012. A survey found that retailers plan to hire somewhere between 720,000 and 780,000 seasonal workers this year, compared with the incremental 720,500 hired last year (which was a 13% year-over-year increase from 2011). We'll call this our sole neutral indicator.

With five indicators on the positive side, four on the negative and one in the middle, we can't help but call for a lukewarm holiday shopping season. Logically, the length of the shopping season shouldn't have any effect on comps, but this year does have a 6-day disadvantage. The macro economy is still shaky, and heightened promotional activity among retailers is likely to harm the 203 gift-buying season. Hanukkah actually falls quite early this year, so perhaps sales next week will give some indication about the overall strength of this holiday shopping season.