Sears Holdings’ bankruptcy filing: the worst-kept secret in the business world.

Reports that Sears Holdings is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy have to be the least surprising news of the week.

Paralleling that announcement came the one about the pending closure of nearly 200 stores by the end of the year.

Who’s surprised? It seems as though this retail dinosaur has been on its last legs for years now.  Even when Sears merged with Kmart in the early 2000s, I recall one of my business colleagues remarking that it was “one dog of a company buying another dog of a company to create this really big bowser enterprise.”

“Most. Useless. Merger. Ever.” was how another person I know described it.

Indeed, it seems as though Sears’ biggest contributor to its financial bottom-line in recent years has been its real estate holdings. Sales of Sears commercial properties have contributed mightily to the company’s balance sheet, while retail sales seem almost like an afterthought.

Even as the National Retail Federation is forecasting holiday sales to rise nearly 4% this year – a hefty jump in comparative terms – Sears was destined to share in precious little of it.

According to MediaPost columnist Laurie Sullivan, everyone should have seen the handwriting on the wall when Adthena released its latest online retail activity reporting.  Tellingly, Amazon and Walmart collectively account for nearly 45% of all online retail clicks.

“Old school” department store firms such as Macys and Kohls do significantly worse, typically taking between 3% and 4% of clicks apiece.

But Sears has been a poor performer compared even to the weak showing of traditional department stores; Adthena reports that Sears accounts for just 0.7% of online retail clicks.

To add the final nail in the coffin, anyone looking closely at what’s been happening with Sears’ print and online display advertising expenditures can see that the company was busily rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Media measurement firm Statista reports that Sears/Kmart decreased the dollar amount it spent on such advertising from ~$1.5 billion in 2013 to just ~$415 million in 2017.  That’s more than a 70% drop during a period of economic recovery.

When the numbers between market growth and advertising decline cross like that, you know exactly where things are headed …

Will Sears or Kmart even be brand names in another decade? It’s difficult to see how.

Get Ready for Internet Sales Taxes

Are sales taxes finally coming to the Internet?

Taxes on the InternetAfter years of fruitless attempts, it would seem so.

On July 15th, five senators introduced legislation on a bipartisan basis to make taxation of purchases made over the Internet a reality.

The legislation is called the Marketplace and Internet Tax Freedom Act, and it combines the efforts of two initiatives that had been separate before:  The Marketplace Fairness Act and the Internet Tax Freedom Act.

On the one hand, the legislation would keep access to the Internet tax-free by limiting what state and local governments can do to impose Internet access fees – at least for the coming decade.

On the other hand, it gives states the unambiguous ability to enforce their sales tax laws on businesses selling to buyers located within their borders – including if those purchases are made online.

In other words, the 44 states that currently have sales tax laws on their books will be able to collect online sales taxes.

Not surprisingly, the National Retail Federation and other trade groups that represent brick-and-mortar retailing are lauding the actions of the five senators in introducing the legislation.

David French, the NRF’s senior vice president for government relations, noted that it’s high time “for Congress to eliminate the sales tax disparity, which disproportionally impacts community and independent retailers.”

Unlike in prior years when Senate and House lawmakers seemed incapable of coming together in support of sales tax legislation, this time appears different.


I think part of the reason is the sense that, at the end of the day, it just isn’t fair for offline retailers to shoulder the burden of collecting taxes – along with being at a competitive disadvantage – versus online retailers who benefit from being able to offer lower the same products at a lower overall cost, while also benefiting from lower overhead costs in most cases.

The fact that the current legislative bill is being introduced by senators from across the political spectrum as well as a diverse geography (the Northeast, South and Midwest) — tells me that the legislation will go through — and that the days of tax-free online shopping are numbered.

It will be interesting to see what the ramifications might be if and when the legislation passes.  Will 24/7 armchair convenience trump the sudden 5%-7% higher cost to online consumers?

Those consumers can be notoriously price-sensitive … but they’re also creatures of habit and great lovers of convenience.

My prediction is that the new regulations will turn out to have little or no impact on the broader retail buying behaviors.  If you concur — or if you have a different opinion — please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Will there be holiday cheer in retail sales this season?

Holiday Shopping ForecastHere’s a statistic that surprises no one, probably:  As of November 1st, more than one in five U.S. consumers had already begun their holiday season shopping.

Considering that many merchants begin pushing online and in-store holiday sales in October, it’s hardly any wonder.

In fact, marketing firm IgnitionOne is predicting that American consumers will spend 11% more during Thanksgiving weekend than they did last year.

Some of the increase is undoubtedly due to the calendar; Thanksgiving weekend is nearly a full week later than it was in 2012.

And other forecasting data don’t presage a big jump in holiday sales this year.

According to the National Retail Federation, sales are expected to be “not too hot … not too cold” – up a tad from 2012 but not at the growth level witnessed in 2010 and 2011:

  • 2009:  0.5% sales increase over previous year
  • 2010:  5.3% increase
  • 2011:  5.1% increase
  • 2012:  3.5% increase
  • 2013 (forecast):  3.9% increase to $602 billion

Clues to the reasons behind the middling sales growth forecast can be found in Nielsen’s Holiday Spending Forecast report, in which American consumers describe their financial circumstances in these terms:

  • Two-thirds still feel like they’re in a recession.
  • Half are limited to spending funds on only the basics.
  • One in five has no spare cash at all.

How this translates to the amount of dollars consumers expect to spend on their holiday shopping breaks down as follows:

  • ~44% will spend less than $250 this season
  • ~30% will spend between $250 and $500
  • ~20% will spend between $500 and $1,000
  • ~6% will spend more than $1,000

As in years past, the most popular gift item promises to be … gift cards.  Technology products, toys, food and apparel round out the “top five” holiday gifts.  This is little changed from last year.

And here’s one other stat that retail establishments must be looking at:  Mobile commerce sales grew by ~16% during the holiday season between 2011 and 2012, and ~18% of shoppers checked out deals on their mobile devices.

Those percentages are bound to increase this year.

More findings from Nielsen’s 2013 Holiday Spending Forecast study can be found here.

Even with endless gift choices available online … gift cards reign supreme.

Gift cards are bigger than ever in holiday season 2011
Gift cards are forecast to be bigger than ever in holiday season 2011.
The growth of online shopping has been well-documented, and this holiday season is no exception.

And why not? Online shopping so convenient and cost-effective.

Shopping online gives people the flexibility to shop from wherever they are, without having to spend money on transportation. They can shop at all hours of the day or night. Merchandise price comparisons between sites are easy to do. And in many cases, consumers won’t have to pay any sales taxes or shipping charges.

Tack on free gift notes and even free gift-wrapping at many sites, and you have to wonder why anyone would bother to shop for gifts any other way.

In an environment where shopping has become so easy, convenient and cost-effective – and with basically endless merchandise choices – you might figure that holiday shoppers would be finding and buying “just the right gift” for family members or friends.

And so what’s “just the right gift”? Gift cards – to the tune of $28 billion, according to the National Retail Federation’s Holiday Consumer Intentions & Actions Survey, which queried more than 8,500 consumers in early November.

It’s not just that gift cards are the easiest possible gift to buy, with basicaly zero thought going into the purchase. It turns out they’re also the most requested holiday gift on people’s wish lists. (Prior NRF surveys going back five years have found that to be the case, too.)

The 2011 holiday intentions survey found that gift cards are on track to eclipse last year’s performance:

More people plan to purchase gift cards this season (~80% versus ~77% in 2010)

 The average gift card amount will be higher (~$43 vs. ~$41)

The average total spend on all gift cards is predicted to be ~$155 per purchaser. The survey also found that men tend to spend more on gift cards than women.

Speaking for myself, I’m not at all surprised by that last finding. I think I fit the profile pretty well: After “one too many” gift returns made by my wife and daughters, I resorted to gift cards a few years ago and have never looked back.

Valentine’s Day Spending: All Hearts and Flowers?

Valentine's Day is hearts and dollarsWith the recession finally receding, are we now seeing an uptick in spending for Valentine’s Day — arguably the most romantic day on the calendar?

According to a January Consumer Intentions & Actions questionnaire conducted among ~8,900 participants for the National Retail Federation by survey firm BIGresearch, American adults over age 18 will spend an average of ~$115 on traditional Valentine’s Day merchandise this year. That’s up more than 11% over 2010, and collectively represents spending of nearly $17 billion.

But we have yet to return to the levels of Valentine’s Day spending that were reached in 2007 and 2008 – the highest on record.

Jewelry appears to be the big item on the Valentine’s Day shopping list. Approximately $3.5 billion is expected to be spent in this segment this year, which is up more than 15% from the ~$3.0 billion spent in 2010.

Dining out is another popular category, but its growth is not expected to be nearly as big as jewelry’s – just 3%. The six most popular categories as determined in the NRF study include:

 Jewelry: $3.5 billion
 Dining out: $3.3 billion
 Flowers: $1.7 billion
 Clothing: $1.6 billion
 Candy: $1.5 billion
 Greeting cards: $1.1 billion

[I was surprised at the greeting cards figure. True, cards are a lower-price item compared to the other categories, but the number still seemed pretty meager. It turns out that only about half of the consumers surveyed reported that they planned on purchasing a Valentine’s card, which was lower than I thought would be the case.]

Not surprisingly, younger adults (age 25-34) are expected to spend significantly more than their older counterparts. They’re projected to spend an average of nearly $190 on Valentine’s Day merchandise compared to only about $60 spent by adults over 65.

But it’s not just because of “sweet, fresh young love” versus “tired, worn-out old love.” It’s because young couples and young parents are often buying not only for each other, but also for their co-workers … their children … their children’s friends … and their children’s teachers as well.

And here’s another statistic that won’t surprise very many people: Women will receive Valentine’s Day gifts averaging around $160, which is double the value of gifts for men.

Now, that’s a dynamic that’s likely never changed … and probably never will!

How We’ll Thank Dad on Father’s Day

NecktiesDid you know that Americans will spend an average of over $90 on a Father’s Day gift this year? That’s the conclusion of the National Retail Federation’s annual Father’s Day Intentions & Actions Survey of nearly 8,500 U.S. consumers.

I was surprised, too. Maybe we’re a bit more frugal in the Nones household.

In any case, it’s clear that Father’s Day gifts have gone far beyond the traditional necktie. Around 40% of the NRF survey respondents reported that they’ll be treating Dad by taking him out to eat. And about one-third are taking the really easy way out by buying gift cards.

The remaining respondents are planning to purchase Father’s Day gifts that range from clothes to electronics.

Based on the survey findings, the NRF predicts that nearly $10 billion will be spent on Father’s Day gifts this year. Here are the largest categories:

 Going out to eat: ~$1.9 billion
 Clothing items: ~1.3 billion
 Gift cards: ~$1.2 billion
 Electronics: ~$1.2 billion
 Greeting cards: ~$750 million
 Tools and appliances: ~$575 million

As to where people will shop for their gifts, dear ol’ Dad will be proud to know how cost-conscious and efficient they’ll be in making purchases, since a majority of the respondents plan to shop at big box or discount stores, or make online purchases.

Incidentally, Father’s Day isn’t just for Dads anymore. In fact, only about half of the NRF survey respondents will be giving gifts purchased for fathers or stepfathers. The rest will be giving to husbands, sons, brothers, grandfathers … or just good friends.

Happy Father’s Day everyone.