Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas Shopping After the Rush

I went out shopping several times this week. By all appearances, the Christmas rush was long past. That observation clashes with U.S. retail statistics that show that today, the last Saturday before Christmas, is the biggest day of the year. If you are out shopping today, though, you might not see it. Today is probably the big day if the metric you look at is spending by shoppers in stores (this includes the big Christmas food purchases in supermarkets). It is not nearly so big if you are measuring retail traffic. There are lots of shoppers, but the mall parking lots will not fill up because people cannot afford to spend much time shopping. The car will be parked at the mall for an hour or less. There is no time left for indecision — it’s the day to grab whatever you need, pay whatever you have to pay, and get home in time to go out again to the Christmas parties. Today is the biggest day for Christmas parties, so most people who are shopping this morning have social obligations later. Did I mention that today is also Humbug Day? That’s a coincidence of the calendar this year, but all this rushing around, which for many of us reaches its peak today, is what leads people to say, “Bah! Humbug!” about the whole Christmas season.

Returning to the subject of retail, today is a “make-or-break” day for many retailers after dangerous or unpleasant weather conditions across half of the United States marred the previous two weekends. I think people will go out to buy what they need today, but when shoppers have to be quick about their errands, it minimizes the potential for the impulse purchases that ultimately make stores profitable. I can relate an example of this from a visit I made with another shopper to Bath & Body Works two days ago. We were looking for a hand lotion that would work as a gift but settled, in about two minutes, on a body lotion from a display at the front of the store, marked down by 67 percent. In my spare seconds I scanned the store for anything I might want for myself, but you can’t really pick out a personal care product from five meters away.

Along the way we took a few minutes to walk through the revamped JCPenney. The store space was transformed with very nice neutral white lighting, along with a brighter, cleaner floor and brighter walls that also reflected high-quality ambient light onto the merchandise. Unfortunately, the merchandise so accurately illuminated by all this nice white light was not obviously different from what you might have seen half a century ago. I looked at shirts, proudly featured on modern mannequins, that might as well have been left behind from the 1980s or 1960s. The same could be said for the other clothing and many of the housewares I happened to walk past. JCPenney’s great challenge these days is to get the shoppers who abandoned the department store five or ten years ago to return — but to what end, if we walk around for a few minutes and leave saying “They mopped the floor, but nothing’s really changed”? It almost doesn’t seem fair to be evaluating JCPenney right after shopping in more up-to-date stores like Victoria’s Secret, American Eagle Outfitters, and Macy’s, but then, this is the actual mall JCPenney chose to make its case to shoppers.

Speaking of the mall, remodeling has made the place look more lively. This particular mall recently demolished one anchor store to make room for surface parking, then eliminated a dozen stores adjacent to the abandoned anchor, apparently converting that space for use as storage. It also expanded many stores, most notably H&M, which grew to department-store size on two levels, occupying a space that was drawn up for 12 stores. The happy result is a mall more than 90 percent occupied. But fewer stores also means fewer shoppers, and the overflow parking, once required for the entire Christmas shopping season, was never pressed into service this season.

The tame shopping scenes this week and weekend tell us of a Christmas shopping season that peaked some time ago, and there are other indications. The jobs report for the week ending December 8 had almost the highest seasonally adjusted new jobless tally all year, suggesting that seasonal retail employees may have been pink-slipped right on Black Friday, or (I hope) over the three days that followed. When I asked around this week, I heard of stores where workers had used their extensive free time last week to take down the store’s Christmas decorations. Retail has to be forward-looking, and with the Christmas season behind them, it was time to start getting ready for spring. A generation ago, the Christmas shopping season ran from Black Friday to Christmas Eve, and most news reports still describe it that way, but this year, most of the actual shopping happened between the Saturday after Halloween and the Monday after Thanksgiving, fully three weeks earlier than the traditional schedule.