Retail: A Flat Holiday Season?

For retail companies and their investors, attention is turning to the prospects for the U.S. holiday season.

Last year’s holiday season arrived just months after an economic meltdown. Consumers panicked and holiday sales fell 2.4%, the first decline since 1967.

Deloitte issued a forecast today saying it expects holiday sales be flat in 2009. The firm forecasts total U.S. holiday sales of $810 billion. (That’s November to January sales, excluding motor vehicles and gasoline.)

Says Carl Steidtmann, Deloitte Research chief economist, in a statement:

Although there are signs that suggest the economy is nearing the end of its darkest days, many consumers remain burdened by restricted credit availability, high unemployment and foreclosures. Americans continue to save at historically high rates while also paying down debt, and these factors combined suggest another chilly holiday season for retailers.

Making predictions like this is always difficult. Bad news could sour Americans’ mood even further before Christmas. Or, the economy could improve more quickly than expected. Workers who fear for their jobs could be resting easier in two or three months, while millions of unemployed workers could start finding work.

For investors in retail-sensitive stocks, the biggest near-term danger may be that expectations for the holidays get too high. Deloitte’s flat forecast is hardly optimistic. But it does suggest that retail may be stopping its bleeding. Retail’s agenda for 2010 will be to begin the healing process.

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