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Is holiday shopping really necessary?

Christmas is the season of peace on Earth and goodwill towards men--welcome sentiments any time of year. But the other Christmas--the holiday shopping season--may not be necessary in this day and age.
/ Source: Forbes

Christmas is the season of peace on Earth and goodwill towards men--welcome sentiments any time of year. But the other Christmas--the holiday shopping season--may not be necessary in this day and age.

First of all, no matter how good it is, it's bad. This year, analysts were expecting the best holiday shopping season in several years, with the consensus being that sales would rise 4% over the pervious year. Then came the inevitable disappointments: First there were two snowstorms in the Northeast, then came the just-before-Christmas terror alert. Shoppers could not get to stores! Oh no! The result: Some ever-optimistic retailers who had quietly--or nor so quietly--ratcheted up expectations found holiday sales falling short of those expectations, as they inevitably do in good years and bad.

In reality, most analysts still expect sales growth in line with the 4% pre-Christmas thinking. An apparent surge in last-minute shopping and strong day-after-Christmas sales may boost results a bit higher still when the final numbers are in, and they should show the fastest growth since 1999. Internet sales and consumer electronics were particularly strong. But low-priced department store sales were soft. Toy sellers like Toys R Us had a tough year, with iconic FAO Schwarz declaring bankruptcy for a second time and Wizards of the Coast, a unit of Hasbro, announcing the closure of all its retail stores within the next 60 days.

Running up to Dec. 25, there are the inevitable local news stories about the sales, the lines at 6 A.M., the man-on-the-street interviews wondering what the man on the street wants or plans to spend, the hysteria about the "must have" gift or hottest toy. But the dirty little secret about holiday sales is that they don't matter nearly as much to the overall economy as all the hype suggests.

U.S. December non-auto retail sales in 2002 totaled $281.5 billion, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), citing U.S. Census data. That looks like a big number, but it shrinks in context.

Total personal consumption spending in the U.S. was $7,199 billion that year, making holiday shopping just 3% of the total. In 2002, December accounted for 10.3% of non-auto retail sales. That's a disproportionate share, but not by much. The next best months, May and November, accounted for 8.7% each. When one accounts for the fact that the economy tends to grow over the course of the year and that bonuses tend to be paid in December, the economic boost from holiday sales seems even smaller. The oft-cited idea that the holidays make or break retailers seems an exaggeration.

In few categories, the holidays indeed loom large. Jewelry is the main one, with December accounting for 25% of "non-anchor mall" sales, according to the ICSC. Home entertainment and electronics also get a boost, with December accounting for 22% of the annual total. Overall, though, the fourth quarter in 2002 accounted for 27.4% of retail, not counting auto sales and parts.

The U.S. economy is so rich it seems to hardly need the holidays at all. Still, the hysteria continues. Retailers are reportedly offering deeper discounts to lure shoppers back into stores for post-holiday sales in an effort to recoup "lost" sales--that is, sales they imagined they should have achieved had it not been too snowy, too cold...or too warm.

While luxury retailers like Neiman Marcus Group and Saks Fifth Avenue have done well this year, reports worry that Wal-Mart has had a slightly off year, especially compared to previous years when Wal-Mart, Target and other discounters seemed to be the only ones doing well.

Retail experts say the post-Christmas period was especially busy this year. Shoppers were pulled in by big discounts--which many retailers like Gap and Ann Taylor Stores avoided pre-Christmas--by the rush to return gifts and the urge to redeem gift cards.

In fact, last year the week after Christmas accounted for 12% of holiday sales, further proof that the rush to buy is not seasonal, but a constant phenomenon.