Blockbuster Cyber Monday is overshadowed by economic outlook

CYBERMANIA: Shoppers are on track to spend an estimated record of $7.8 billion on Cyber Monday. / BLOOMBERG NEWS FILE PHOTO/ALEX KRAUS
CYBERMANIA: Shoppers are on track to spend an estimated record of $7.8 billion on Cyber Monday. / BLOOMBERG NEWS FILE PHOTO/ALEX KRAUS

NEW YORK – Shoppers are on track to spend an estimated $7.8 billion on Cyber Monday – a record – boosting a strong holiday shopping season. And Wall Street seems to be mostly shrugging it off.

Consumers dropped $531 million online as of 10 a.m. New York time, according to Adobe Inc., on track for about an 18 percent increase from a year ago. Top items include Little Live Pets, animal dolls that kiss and lick, the Nintendo Switch and Beats headphones.

Even a blockbuster holiday won’t divert the market’s attention from rising interest rates next year and the escalating trade war between the United States and China that’s expected to slow global economic growth. U.S. President Donald Trump in September imposed 10 percent tariffs on approximately $200 billion worth of Chinese imports and plans to raise the levy to 25 percent in January, which will drive prices higher.

Fears about a consumer spending slowdown in 2019 outweigh any positive signs of a strong holiday, said Tom Forte, analyst at DA Davidson & Co.

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“Many of the tariffs will likely be borne by consumers in the second half of 2019 in the form of higher prices on products,” he said. “Higher interest rates may dampen spending on big-ticket items.”

Companies like Inc., Walmart Inc. and Target Corp. that are fighting to win holiday spending online may not see a substantial payoff in terms of their market value. And some technical fumbles on Black Friday showed that traditional stores are still struggling to accommodate the hoards of internet shoppers. Even with substantial investments in technology, some retail giants including Walmart, Lowe’s Cos. and Kohl’s Corp. confronted glitches and malfunctioning websites on Friday, a sign they aren’t keeping pace with the load of consumers switching to e-commerce.

Amazon is projected to capture nearly half of all online spending this year, making it the biggest beneficiary of online spending growth. But even the world’s largest online retailer has given investors reasons to worry. Warehouse worker wage hikes announced in October could put a drag on the company’s earnings in the holiday shopping period as well as next year, said Jitendra Waral, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. Amazon shares were up more than 4 percent Monday, but remain down for the month.

“Yes, it’ll be a great Cyber Monday but investors are looking beyond what happens over the holiday,” he said.

Purchases on Black Friday, traditionally the best day for sales on electronics, totaled $6.22 billion, up 23.6 percent from a year ago, Adobe data show.

Total holiday retail spending – in stores and online – in November and December will grow by more than 5 percent for the second consecutive year, a first since before the Great Recession about a decade ago, said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners. Investors may be worried about whether that pace can be sustained, even though it’s grounded in low unemployment and wage growth rather than the heavy use of credit that led to the financial crisis, he said.

“The strong consumer and retail spending we are seeing now is coming off of this healthy foundation, which is much more sustainable than the credit bubble we saw 12 years ago,” Johnson said.

The weekend sales bump doesn’t appear to be enough to help retailers recover from the selloff in their shares last week. Target led the rout, with shares tumbling 15 percent, followed by a 12 percent loss at Kohl’s and 11 percent at TJX Cos., the owner of Marshalls and TJ Maxx. Investors ignored robust quarterly sales growth, focusing instead on squeezed profit margins as companies spend to raise wages and increase online sales, outdo each other on free shipping and face new tariffs in the Trump administration’s trade war with China.

In Monday trading, Walmart and Kohl’s rose less than 1 percent and Target gained 1.7 percent.

Cyber Monday has its roots in people returning to work from a long Thanksgiving weekend and using the fast internet connections of their office computers to search for the best deals. Such connections are prevalent now in homes and on smartphones, which should make the day less important. But shoppers are still conditioned to hunt for online deals, and retailers try to meet that expectation.

“Even though you see all these pre-Black Friday sales, people concentrate their spending on Cyber Monday,” said Taylor Schreiner, director of Adobe Digital Insights.

Spencer Soper is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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