Retailers like blaming weather for poor results during the holidays. This year, they have another scapegoat: the calendar.
With Thanksgiving falling on its latest possible date, there are only 26 shopping days between then and Christmas -- compared to 32 last year. That has some companies in a panic, with toymaker Hasbro Inc. telling investors it's teaming up with stores to buoy demand in a "holiday season that has six fewer shopping days than last year." Dollar Tree warned shareholders way back in March that the six-day-shorter period would negatively impact year-end sales.
But analysts say that's just a convenient excuse, one that investors are likely to disregard. Even though holiday shopping was once exclusively between Black Friday and Christmas Eve, stores have been starting promotions earlier and earlier for years, including pushing into Halloween. And consumers are forecast to spend more this holiday period, no matter when Thanksgiving hits.
"The reason some retailers are caught up on this is that in the olden days, meaning long before internet, even before TV advertisements, the traditional Christmas shopping season began the day after Thanksgiving," said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners. "Of course the internet and 24/7 shopping has made those old formulas obsolete."
To be sure, the later Thanksgiving holiday may mean more condensed spending in December, with a Deloitte survey finding nearly 70% of shoppers planning to spend in the first half of December, up from just 53% last year, when many started their gift hunts earlier.
But overall spending should continue to rise, Thanksgiving timing be damned, with Johnson forecasting a rise of about 5%, about on par with Deloitte and International Council of Shopping Centers' own projections. PwC is expecting a more modest 2.7% rise compared to last year, but even that would suggest fears of last year being a "peak Christmas" were overblown.
"Statistically, the holiday shopping season is November and December, and unless I'm mistaken, that means it's 61 days every year," Johnson said. So when retailers talk about a shortened holiday, "they're using it as an excuse."
What the later holiday could mean, however, is a shorter "lull" between the initial shopping rush in the five days from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday and the final weekends before Christmas, traditionally the two biggest shopping bursts, said Poonam Goyal, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.
After Cyber Monday, "there's usually a lull for two weeks because people know they have time to finish all the shopping. While they're casually buying and browsing online, they're not in a rush to get their gifts. So you could argue that because it's shorter, it takes the lull out," she said.
But that won't impact overall spending. "You're going to buy gifts, whether you buy them on Thanksgiving or you buy them on Christmas or you buy them in between," Goyal said. "There's a number of gifts you're going to buy, and you're going to buy them."
Of course, that lack-of-a-lull may mean a busier in-store experience in December, with Steve Bratspies, chief merchandising officer for Walmart Inc. in the U.S., predicting the shortened calendar will add "an intensity inside the stores." Target Corp. is adding nearly $50 million in payroll to help with the crunch.
To help encourage shoppers to get an earlier start this year, Walmart said it's beginning some online seasonal promotions on Oct. 25. "We've been through this before; even though every season is unique, it's not the first time we've dealt with this," Bratspies said.
Customers may not think about those missing six days, "but we plan for it. It tends to sneak up," he said, "so we work hard to make sure we can serve them."
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This article was written by Anne Riley Moffat, a reporter for Bloomberg.
Bloomberg's Donald Moore contributed.