It will be several weeks before the numbers are in on this year's reportedly "lousy" Christmas retail season.
It may be, as some surmise, that the shorter window between Thanksgiving and Christmas, or the lack of any must-have item, or lingering concerns about the economy really did conspire to cause the free-spending American consumer to go easy this year. By some estimates, sales actually fell compared with last year, while others calculated that sales went ahead 1 to 2 percent. Either way, it would be the worst showing in 30 years.
On the other hand, maybe things aren't as bad as they seem -- for the economy, at least, if not for retailers.
For one, the prices of things people buy at Christmas -- clothing, electronics, toys -- are going down, so it should be no surprise that sales, which are measured in dollars, don't look robust. There is also the pesky problem of accounting for catalogue and Internet sales, which by all accounts were booming but often don't get included in the early calculations. Finally, there were the reports last week from the government showing solid increases in personal income and household spending in November.
In fact, it may be that the real problem with the retail sector is not that there are too few consumers willing to spend too little money, but that there are simply too many merchants trying to sell too much uninteresting stuff. Over the past decade, the amount of retail space in the United States has grown twice as fast as the economy as a whole. And if there was any doubt about the excess capacity in the retail sector, one has only to look to the relentless discounting that has become as much a part of the Christmas season as the eggnog and the holiday muzak.
The process of trimming back retail capacity began in earnest last year with the bankruptcy of Kmart and the demise of Ames and Bradlees. And even before the last Christmas bow was tied, FAO, owner of the FAO Schwarz and Zany Brainy toy emporiums, announced it would close 70 stores in an effort to avoid bankruptcy. Look for a spate of similar announcements in January.
The conventional wisdom peddled by retail analysts is that price is now king, and only the Wal-Marts and other discounters will survive this shakeout. With so many sales around, even high-end consumers have got into the sport of bargain hunting.
But the larger truth may be that the only way retail sales will really rebound is when retailing heals itself by closing marginal stores and going back to a tried-and-true formula: offering interesting, quality goods at fair prices in attractive, well-run stores.