Holiday Spending Supports Store Openings Report  Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Holiday Spending Supports Store Openings Report

The biggest retail winners this holiday season also are the same segments that are planning for the most store openings over the next 12 to 24 months, according to RBC Capital Markets’ latest National Retailer Demand Monthly report.

“There’s been a decline in books and electronics for years because those are things are easily purchased online,” says Rich Moore, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets and co-author of the report. “It’s the home furnishings and furniture [retailers] that are the most interesting right now. Openings completely dry up when the economy is weak, but when consumers have more disposable income, you see [these retailers] really perk up.”

Consumers splurge on big ticket items

To the surprise of the retail sector, initial reports indicate U.S. retail sales grew 7.9 percent during the holiday season, excluding autos and gas, according to MasterCard SpendingPulse, which looks at U.S. retail sales trends across cards, cash and checks. The biggest winner this season was the furniture sector, which posted double-digit growth. Electronics and men’s apparel, meanwhile, lagged.

“We saw some very promising trends,” Sarah Quinlan, senior vice president of market insights for MasterCard Advisors, said in a statement. “The double-digit growth in furniture sales, for instance, shows that consumers are willing and able to splurge on big ticket items.”

RBC’s National Retailer Demand Monthly, which tracks roughly 2,000 retailers in its database, reported that retailer same store sales turned negative again in November with declines across every sector that it tracks, with the exception of furniture stores.

RBC’s database tracks about 25 percent of the retailers in the nation and offers a snapshot of the overall industry. The retailers in the firm’s database plan to open 42,408 stores over the next 12 months and 79,461 stores over the next 24 months. Planned store openings over the next 12 and 24 months are up 3.9 percent and 4.1 percent year-to-date.

Specifically, family entertainment, crafts and supplies, maternity apparel and discount department stores showed the greatest positive changes in planned store openings year-to-date, according to the report.

The only publicly-traded company in the craft and supplies sector, The Michaels Companies, reported an increase in third quarter net sales of 3.4 percent to $1.2 billion. Same-store sales, meanwhile, increased 1.5 percent, and the company is forecasting fourth quarter comp store sales will be up in the 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent range, according to Chairman and CEO Chuck Rubin.

During the third quarter, Michaels added 10 stores to its footprint, bringing the total number of Michaels and Aaron Brothers to 1,314 stores, as of October 31. For the fiscal 2015 year, the chain opened 29 net new Michael stores and relocated four Michael stores during the third quarter.

Stores still important

Expanding retailers are anticipating increased consumer demand. In the maternity sector, for example, the annual number of births in the United States increased in 2014, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The fertility rate in 2014 inched up to 62.9 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44, a bit higher than 2013's record low of 62.5. This was the first increase in the fertility rate since 2007.

In contrast, retailers operating in the toys and hobbies, farming supplies, laundromat and book sectors showed the biggest decreases in store openings, according to the RBC report. The slowdown in bookstores is hardly news. Fewer Americans are reading prints books, according to the Pew Research Center. Data shows that 63 percent of American adults say they read at least one book in print in the past year, compared with 69 percent who said the same the year before and 71 percent in 2011.

To that end, Barnes & Noble reported a decrease in sales of 3.1 percent to $861 million for its fiscal 2016 second quarter ending October 31, 2015. The chain attributed the decrease to lower online sales, store closures and a 1 percent comparable store sales drop.

However, Barnes & Noble CEO Ronald Boire said that “improving bookstore trends” are enabling the chain to close fewer bookstores. “Last year, we closed fewer stores than initially planned, and we see the same trend developing this year,” he said during a recent earnings call. “We now expect to close only 10 stores.”

Previously, Barnes & Noble had indicated it would close as many as 20 stores this year. Boire added that the chain is looking at new store prototypes, but isn’t ready to discuss any details yet.

While many people continue to question the viability of bricks-and-mortar stores, MasterCard’s

Quinlan is quick to quash such doubts. “We love the social aspect of shopping,” she said during a recent TV interview.

Quinlan’s views are shared by most retailers. Alex Smith, president and CEO of Pier 1 Imports Inc. points to research that shows brick-and-mortar stores will remain at the heart of home shopping. “Our stores are very central to who we are… over 90 percent of our sales is still touching a store,” he said during the chain’s recent earnings call. “As strong as growth in [ecommerce] continues to be, it will never displace stores on the experience they give our shopper.” 

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