Waiting on the sale

A sale sign announces up to 70% off.

KAI RYSSDAL: It has to be scary for retailers. Counting on one month's-worth of sales, from now 'til Christmas, to bring in half their revenue for the whole year. They have been hustling. They started the Christmas season earlier this year than ever before. Midnight sales. Price wars and discounts like you wouldn't believe. Trouble is, according to the latest data, shoppers don't see good reasons to buy. Marketplace's Stacey Vanek-Smith reports from New York.


STACEY VANEK-SMITH: This holiday season, discounts are the name of the game.
MARSHAL COHEN: If you aren't on sale, you aren't busy.

That's retail analyst Marshal Cohen with the NPD Group. He says holiday shoppers have become discount junkies.

COHEN: Similar to the auto industry, we've educated the consumer to expect discounts, and expect them on a systematic basis.

But for all the price cuts and promotions, retailers aren't cashing in. An index of 54 major U.S. retailers found sales rose just 2 percent this month. That's about half the boost stores saw last year.

Wendy Liebmann is president of WSL Strategic retail. She says part of the problem is the lack of innovative products this season. She says you either need a Play Station 3 or a great price.

WENDY LIEBMANN: If retailers have something that's new, they really better focus on it aggressively. Because that's the one instance in which people will pay, I won't say full price, but a fuller price, and be less driven by discount.

A study released by Liebman's firm today found consumers are especially finicky this year because of uncertainty about gas prices and other expenses. She predicts the shopping season will pick up, but for the moment, she says, consumers are holding out to see if prices will come down even more.

LIEBMANN: We have Black Friday and people run out just for the sport of it. But then, basically, they know that it's a game of chicken, so they go home and they just wait until the retailers blink.

Liebmann says retailers have become more savvy about not overstocking. And many of the gift cards now being bought won't be cashed in until after the holiday discounts have ended.

In New York, I'm Stacey Vanek-Smith for Marketplace.

About the author

Stacey Vanek Smith is a senior reporter for Marketplace, where she covers banking, consumer finance, housing and advertising.

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