Arrow-right Camera


Deep discounts now could cost retailers dearly down the road

Wed., Sept. 3, 2008, midnight

NEW YORK – In a bid to pull hesitant shoppers into their stores, retailers are slashing prices on everything from jeans to dinnerware. But those fat discounts will likely come at a big cost for the companies.

At teen retailer American Eagle Outfitters Inc., shoppers who buy jeans get a second pair at half off. Jewelry chain Zale Corp. is offering an extra 20 percent off on a slew of items such as gold earrings that were already slashed up to 70 percent. And Pottery Barn has discounts of up to 75 percent.

“There’s a fine line between aggressive promotions and panic, and we are seeing a little bit of both right now,” said Dan Hess, founder and CEO of research firm Merchant Forecast.

While retailers entered the fall season with inventories far smaller than last year’s, analysts say many were still a little too hopeful: August sales are turning out to be even weaker than expected, which analysts fear could lead to more piles of marked-down merchandise on the floor. That could in turn hurt third-quarter profits as the industry prepares for the holiday season. Major retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., J.C. Penney Co. and Gap Inc., which also operates Banana Republic and Old Navy stores, are scheduled to announce final August sales results Thursday.

Hess estimated that discounts are 10 percent deeper at mall-based apparel stores than a year ago, despite a drop of from 10 percent to 15 percent in inventories.

“Even though retailers are entering the season conservatively, they still have been too optimistic about the consumer,” he added.

Stifel Nicholas analyst Richard Jaffe noted that the weak sales trend suggests a downturn that more closely resembles the one of the mid-1970s than more recent difficult periods.

“It’s a more prolonged consumer spending downturn,” he said. “It’s going to be tough. There’s no quick way out of it.”

Offering such deep discounts can cost high-end retailers such as Nordstrom Inc. and Saks Inc. in more ways than lower margins or falling profits. By doing so, analysts say, they risk hurting the cachet of their brands. Another major worry is that retailers could lose the power to raise prices once the economy improves. The longer stores are forced to offer generous discounts, the more used to them consumers will get, and resist buying regular-price items later on.

Retailers overall are expected to report a 2 percent increase in same-store sales for August on Thursday, with discounters like Wal-Mart and warehouse club operators such as Costco Wholesale Corp. expected to keep faring much better than the slumping apparel-based stores, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS index. Same-store sales are those at stores open at least a year, and are a key indicator of a retailer’s health.

With no major fashion trend inspiring them to buy, shoppers are focusing on price and sticking to discounters even as mall-based clothing stores have been aggressively discounting. That’s a big hurdle for the mall-based stores, Hess says.


Click here to comment on this story »