“Get out the Ouija board."
That’s how one retail analyst summed up the tricky task of predicting what lies ahead for retailers and shoppers this holiday season. Analysts say there’s ample reason to expect record-breaking sales on the back of a strong economy, a historically low unemployment rate and upward-ticking wages.
But that’s all hedged by a hefty unknown: the threat of ongoing tariffs and an escalating trade war. President Trump’s latest round of tariffs have kicked in at 10 percent and are set to rise to 25 percent at the start of 2019. Nearly 6,000 products -- including electronics and other go-to gifts -- will see price increases that, in time, are expected to pass from retailers to consumers.
And while it’s unlikely that the brunt of those price hikes will take a toll over the next few months, experts agree that the sheer concern over how long the tariffs will last, and to what degree, could act as a Grinch to holiday shoppers.
“Business doesn’t manage uncertainty well, nor does the consumer, and there is no way prices don’t get passed through the consumer,” said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. “The problem I have is, who knows on a day-to-day basis where this is headed?”
The retail industry is still optimistic. On Wednesday, the National Retail Federation announced it is expecting retail sales in November and December to increase between 4.3 and 4.8 percent over 2017 results, to as much as $720.89 billion. That forecast compares with an average annual increase of 3.9 percent over the past five years. (If Labor Day is any indicator, Americans spent a record $2 billion online then alone.)
But for comparison, holiday sales in 2017 rose 5.3 percent over the year before, totaling $687.87 billion, according to the NRF.
In mid-September, Deloitte anticipated retail holiday sales to increase 5 to 5.6 percent over last year’s shopping season -- totaling at least $1.1 trillion between November and January. Rod Sides, leader of Deloitte’s U.S. retail and distribution practice, said shoppers are unlikely to make their shopping decisions based on geopolitical issues, such as global trade.
“A lot of it comes down to when they look in their checkbook or their pocket,” Sides said. “If they have a few extra dollars, whether it be the stock markets to the election to tariffs, it typically doesn’t trickle down.”
At the same time, retailers and industry groups have made their opposition to the tariffs clear. Last month, Walmart sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer cautioning that additional tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods would strike a blow. Walmart -- the largest retailer in the country -- wrote that the “immediate impact will be to raise prices on consumers and tax American businesses and manufacturers." Target chief executive Brian Cornell said the company was “concerned about anything that would cause higher prices on everyday products for American families.”
That’s in concert with arguments from industry groups that say the tariffs will trigger price increases, even if not by this Thanksgiving or Christmas. The Retail Industry Leaders Association, an industry lobbying group, wrote to Lighthizer in September requesting the removal of more than 650 tariff lines from the proposed list of products subject to the latest wave of tariffs. Any tariffs on consumer goods proposed by Trump’s administration, the group wrote, are “nothing more than a hidden tax.”
Larger retailers have long since secured low-priced inventory to get them through the holidays and into the new year. But Hun Quach, vice president for international trade at RILA, noted that as the Chinese tariffs drag on, businesses large and small will be forced to restructure their supply chains. Changing the source on products as simple as plastic stickers can take as long as a year, she said.
“The pricing impact won’t hit immediately," she said. “I think a lot of this uncertainty is about how long these tariffs are going to be in place.”
There’s also the question of whether retailers, embracing a strong economy and shoppers with money to spend, could increase prices anyway. But Cohen said that, even with signs pointing toward a strong holiday season, “the prospect of raising prices across the board is extremely problematic. There’s no getting away with that.”
Still, retailers will have to grapple with questions of when to time price increases on goods that will feel the full brunt of the tariffs at the start of 2019.
“Do you start to adjust prices now or do you wait until January?” Cohen said. “That’s a difficult decision.”
Mark Rosenbaum, department chair and professor of retailing at the University of South Carolina, said that many retailers placed their holiday-season orders over the summer, and that it would be unusual for them to alter the prices now because of the tariffs.
Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation, noted that many of the tariffs apply to goods that have “already been ordered, and have been shipped and are on their way.” The “precise effects of the tariffs are not yet completely clear," but any impacts are likely to hit closer to the start of 2019. The tariffs may hit prices for jewelry by Valentine’s Day, for example, but that may be the earliest shoppers will feel a difference.
In the meantime, retailers and shoppers will have reason to stay merry.
“Thinking about the ability to spend -- the data shows that we are in a good place,” Kleinhenz said. “The picture looks very good.”