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US holiday sales data yet to cement a recovery

Holiday season sales improved this year after an abysmal 2008, but early data appears unlikely to spell out a rebound in US consumer spending.

Holiday shopping and its impact on the economy have been particularly tough to predict as retailers lapped 2008, when holiday season sales fell for the first time on record in the wake of a global financial crisis.

An extra day between the US Thanksgiving holiday and Christmas in 2009 also makes some tallies appear rosier and more confusing to digest, just as investors are hanging on to every data point for signs of an economic recovery.

“This has been one of the hardest seasons. Before, it was 'well, is it going to be up 3 or 3.5%?' This year it could be up, it could be down. Do you base it versus last year, do you look versus a couple years ago?” said Patricia Edwards, founder of wealth management firm Storehouse Partners.

Groups such as the industry's National Retail Federation, the International Council of Shopping Centers, ShopperTrak and SpendingPulse issue forecasts based on widely varying parameters throughout the holiday shopping season.

Heading into the holiday season, when retailers can make up to 40% of annual revenue, most industry forecasts predicted sales would be up 1% to down 1%.

“They provide some indication of where we're going, but they're hardly precise,” said Peter Morici, a professor at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business.

Government data, which is released on January 14 and could be revised in February, is “the only complete picture,” he said. The Commerce Department's January report will not include online sales, which come out in February.

But most investors are unlikely to wait to place their bets on a retail recovery and should narrow their focus now, experts told Reuters.

 

FINDING MEANING IN THE MOSAIC

 

Edwards and others said they do not rely on any one set of sales statistics to guide their investments.

“I subscribe to the mosaic theory,” Edwards said. “I look at bits and pieces of all the data and try to piece together the puzzle, as opposed to looking at one set of data and saying 'OK, there it is, there's the Holy Grail.'”

SpendingPulse, a unit of MasterCard Advisers, said on Monday that sales rose 3.6% from November 1 through Christmas Eve, or 1% excluding the extra day between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

SpendingPulse relies on data from the MasterCard payments network and estimates for use of cash and other payment forms. It excludes automobile and gasoline sales.

Needham & Co analyst Christine Chen said one could read into the results to find glimmers of hope.

“Things have bottomed. Things are starting to recover, so to speak,” Chen said. “Will it be this fast and furious recovery? I don't think so.”

But the NRF, which bases its reports on US government data, still expects a 1% decline in retail sales for the November-December period, excluding autos, gasoline, restaurants and online shopping. In 2008, such sales fell 3.4% to $441.97 billion.

Data over a more focused time period is no more consistent. ShopperTrak said on Wednesday that sales rose an estimated 8.8% in the week ended December 26, while ICSC and Goldman Sachs said seasonally adjusted same-store sales at about 75 US chain stores rose 2.3% in that period.

Adding to the confusion over whether consumers are truly on the mend, a survey just after Christmas found that an unprecedented 22% of people polled did not finish their holiday shopping because prices were too high.

 

A HALTING RECOVERY

 

Morici expects that holiday shopping was up, but not dramatically, after last year's decline.

“It's very consistent with the notion that the economy is moving into a very halting recovery, and that's it,” he said.

A stronger picture should emerge on January 7, when many top retail chains issue December data on sales at stores open at least a year. But for the first time in a holiday season, those results will exclude Wal-Mart Stores Inc, which stopped reporting monthly sales, depriving investors of insight into spending at the world's largest retailer.

Analysts on average currently expect December same-store sales to rise 1.3% at 30 retailers tracked by Thomson Reuters Data, after a 0.5% rise in November and a 3.6% decline a year earlier.

Further clouding the tallies, gift cards represent a sizable portion of holiday gifts, but do not count as sales until they are redeemed, often in late December or January.

Meanwhile, tracking firms differ on how fast online shopping is growing. SpendingPulse said web sales jumped 15.5% from November 1 until Christmas Eve, while comScore Inc reported a 5% rise. Forrester Research Inc said it still expects online retail sales for November and December to rise 8% to $44.7 billion. (Reuters)