JEFFREY BROWN: A still tentative American economy looked online today, as digital deals were to be had, and holiday shoppers lit up Web sites. Retailers had high hopes that Cyber Monday sales would add to what’s been a strong start so far.
If all goes as expected, today will end up being the busiest online shopping day of the year, with major bargains and steep discounts just a click away.
MARSHAL COHEN, The NPD Group: Every year, we keep seeing more and more consumers shopping online, both the younger consumer which was born with a computer in their crib. They’re very comfortable with doing it. And the older generation is also now shopping online. Deals are becoming plentiful.
JEFFREY BROWN: All told, the research firm comScore estimates Americans will spend $1.5 billion online today. That would be an increase of 20 percent from last year.
In anticipation, Amazon.com and other major online sellers are going all out to keep up with the spike in demand. And all this follows a successful opening holiday sales weekend that began on Thanksgiving night.
The National Retail Federation reports a record 247 million consumers have cashed in on door-buster deals in stores and online.
On Friday alone, Internet sales surpassed the $1 billion mark for the first time.
For more now about the early impact of this shopping season and the broader economic trends, Nariman Behravesh is chief economist for IHS, a research and forecasting firm.
Nancy Koehn has written about the retail industry as a historian at the HarvardBusinessSchool.
And Neil Irwin is an economics editor and columnist for The Washington Post.
Nariman Behravesh, let me start with you. What’s the overview of the number so far? What do you take from them?
NARIMAN BEHRAVESH, IHS Global Insight: Well, there are a couple of trends, obviously.
One is that the consumer is in a very good mood, for good reason. Income growth is decent. Job growth is coming along, as it were. Housing is doing well. So consumers are in a pretty good mood.
Consumer confidence is at a four-year high and that’s getting reflected in the Christmas sales, if you will. They’re solid. They’re reasonable strong, 4 percent-5 percent growth year over year.
But as you were saying earlier, it’s really the online sales that are booming. They’re growing well into the double digits. You mentioned the 20 percent rate. That’s about what we’re expecting for this year compared with last year, so solid growth in terms of the total spending of consumers on Christmas goods and holiday sales and stuff.
But the really interesting story is the online story, where it’s just growing like gangbusters.
JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask Nancy Koehn, because we talked about this expanded shopping season, earlier than Thanksgiving and now Cyber Monday.
How are retailers dealing with this change? It’s a landscape that has changed even from a few years ago.
NANCY KOEHN, HarvardSchool of Business: Very much so. It’s a landscape with which all these boundaries are blurring, the boundaries between brick and mortar and online, the boundaries between channels. It’s like someone took a big pink eraser and like smudged all over retail.
So, smart retailers, everyone from Neiman Marcus at the high end to Target in the kind of high-low category, are figuring out how to use the Web, including smartphones, right, including apps for smartphones, to draw traffic into their store, to increase their online sales, and to really try and make one plus one equals three.
And it looks like, for places like Target, again, places like Apple, that strategy is working very well. So a changed game, a game that’s really very dynamic in which everyone is hunting and gathering, retailers for customers, customers for deals.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Neil Irwin, there’s still a lot of attention on the weekend and sort of this season as an indicator. But you have written that maybe it’s not such a good indicator.
NEIL IRWIN, The Washington Post: Yes. I know we all love these stories of people rushing through the doors of the Wal-Mart to get their television or all these sales and everyone going online of course today on Monday.
In fact, as a broader indicator of what’s happening in the retail sector, it’s not the best indicator in the world. It doesn’t tell you a whole lot about what happens throughout the holiday season, what happens to personal consumption as a whole. That said, this is a very important season for retailers. This is an important season for economy.
And with all the uncertainty out there, to see a good start to it is better than the alternative.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, what do you see? Pick up on some of the things we just heard about.
NEIL IRWIN: Yes. Well, as Nariman alluded to, the American household is starting to fix its financial problems. It’s gradual, it’s halting.
Debt service ratios are down to the 1990s level. The level of household debt to GDP is down to early 2000 levels. So we’re making progress in paying off these debts from the boom years.
The job market is gradually crawling back. And, actually, consumer sentiment, it stepped down a little in November, but is actually — was up a good bit in September and October.
So, American consumers are feeling better than they were a year ago. The question is how much does that translate into cashing their — making purchases at the store?
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Nariman Behravesh, that is the — consumers are feeling a little better. Are businesses feeling a little better? Are they investing? Are they maybe hiring? What — how does all — how does that work?
NARIMAN BEHRAVESH: Well, in a worrying way, they’re not. And we do have this disconnect in the U.S. economy between consumers on the one hand — and they account for 70 percent of the economy, but they’re feeling fairly good about things, whereas businesses are not.
And businesses tend to be more worried about things like the fiscal cliff. They’re more worried about the troubles in Europe. They’re more worried about the slowdown in China. So, you do have this disconnect.
The big concern now is, which way is it going to go? Who is going to win this tug-of-war?
So far, it’s the consumer, but let’s hope it’s not the other direction, because, as I said, let’s hope that the businesses will eventually come around to thinking about things the way consumers are.
JEFFREY BROWN: Nancy Koehn, I want to come back to you on this question of online shopping and the changed landscape, because does that have a real impact on — does the rise of online shopping have a real impact on the economy or is it just sort of shifting, transferring where people buy their — buy their — buy their things?
NANCY KOEHN: Well, I think that’s a very open question, partly because this is so new and the marriage and the magic of online plus bricks and mortar.
I mean, there’s no question people are visiting online websites more often than they do stores.
Whether that adds up to kind of incremental, organic growth is a question we just don’t know, because, remember, we’re starting with all online sales from a much, much lower base when we talk about brick and mortar sales. We’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars, $600 billion in predicted holiday sales.
Only a small portion of that, maybe 20 percent, but much more likely somewhere around 10 percent, will be online sales. I think some of that is really organic and new, but we don’t yet have the numbers for this holiday season.
You know, as several people have commented today, we don’t even know that this kind of momentum, which is very real, very significant for this five-day holiday spree, much more than even the boom optimists predicted, whether that will continue into the long holiday season still ahead.
JEFFREY BROWN: Neil, what do you look at when — the question of online shopping, is it its own thing? Does it add to the whole? What is its impact in the larger picture?
NEIL IRWIN: People are going to spend based on their incomes and their jobs and their paychecks. Ultimately, whether that spending happens online at Amazon or in a store, you know, it matters for the retail sector. It matters for all kinds of workers in that sector.
But in terms of the overall economy, what matters is how much people are spending. One man’s spending is another man’s income. And getting to a place where more people have jobs, people have higher incomes, that’s the goal, wherever those dollars happen to be spent.
JEFFREY BROWN: And what is your reading on the psychology of consumers now? You were saying earlier that the debt overhang seems to be better. Is there a pent-up demand? Can we tell yet?
NEIL IRWIN: Not much sign of pent-up demand.
One thing I’m worried about is this fiscal cliff issue, the tax increases and spending cuts that take place Jan. 1, unless Congress and the president reach a deal, that business has been worried about that for months. Maybe consumers are starting to — maybe it’s starting to creep into their thinking as well.
We saw a weaker consumer sentiment number last week. That’s the kind of thing to watch, to worry about as we wonder what this holiday season is going to be like.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Nariman, I want to ask you, is it strange or have things really changed?
Because on the one hand we want people to get out and spend, but on the other hand we still talk about overspending and spending with money that people didn’t really have was part of the problem that got us into this state in the first place.
So what’s — that sounds like a little bit of a disconnect. Where are we on that?
NARIMAN BEHRAVESH: Well, I think Neil is right in saying that consumer finances are in much better shape right now. So, in that sense, the kind of spending we’re seeing now is more sustainable. It’s healthier in a sense.
Debt levels are down. People are not taking, say, home equity out to spend on a car or, you know, on a flat-screen TV. So it’s a much healthier kind of spending.
I’m much more optimistic that it can be sustained, it can be continued, and it’s not going to be sort of a house of cards that’s going to collapse at some point. So, in that sense, I think there is room for optimism.
JEFFREY BROWN: A brief last word on that from you, Nancy Koehn? What do you see?
NANCY KOEHN: Could not agree more. I think consumers are much smarter, much savvier, much more adaptable.
You notice how much consumer sentiment bounces around month to month. That’s not a capricious consumer. That’s a consumer who is taking their pulse and adjusting their wallets and their spending very quickly without access to the kind of debt and house of cards financing that we saw for the early part of this decade.
JEFFREY BROWN: Even, Neil, if they’re lining up overnight, right, to get to a deal.
NANCY KOEHN: Even if they’re lining up.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Neil Irwin, Nancy Koehn, Nariman Behravesh, thank you, all three, very much.
NEIL IRWIN: Thanks, Jeff.
NANCY KOEHN: Pleasure.
NARIMAN BEHRAVESH: Thank you.