Count on coal this Christmas.
That's what researchers at Morgan Stanley are saying in the first major forecast of a decidedly dour holiday season. Retailers hoping for a respite from a year of so-so shopping can instead expect the worst Thanksgiving-to-Christmas sales since 2008, the financial services firm said Thursday.
Five years ago, the industry was free-falling into recession. This year, a new collection of worrisome economic conditions looms as stores gear up for a period that can sometimes account for 40% of annual revenue.
Shopper confidence is low. The recent federal government stalemate and shutdown was a damper. The window for holiday shopping is six days shorter than it was last year.
At the same time, consumer spending, which makes up more than two-thirds of economic activity, is actually getting a boost. Gasoline prices are lower, and net worth is rising because of higher real estate values and a stock market upswing, Morgan Stanley said in a report.
But instead of shoveling extra money into gifts, many Americans are plowing it into big-ticket items such as cars, appliances and home improvement goods.
The report anticipates that during the fourth quarter, retailers will see a scant 1.7% increase in sales at stores open at least a year. Such same-store sales are an important indicator because they eliminate the effect of opening and closing outlets during the previous 12 months.
Strip out struggling J.C. Penney Co., which researchers predict will roll out deep discounts early in the season, and projected sales growth slips to 1.6%.
That's less than half of last year's 3.5% expansion, according to Morgan Stanley.
The dire outlook contrasts with much sunnier figures from retail trade groups.
The International Council of Shopping Centers said Thursday that net operating income per square foot at malls hit a record high in the third quarter. The 7.4% increase from the same period in 2012 was the sixth straight gain.
In early October, the National Retail Federation said it expected holiday sales to rise 3.9% to $602.1 billion. The forecast — described as "neither robust nor pessimistic" — shows improvement from last year's 3.5% boost.
This week, the trade group said September retail sales increased a "healthy" 0.6% from August, with "broad sales gains" in most categories. The apparel sector was not among them.
"While far from robust, consumers are shopping, but they are spending both discriminately and moderately," NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said in a statement.
But in the federal government's assessment of September retail performance, sales slid 0.1% compared with August, to $425.9 billion. The gauge, which includes food service, gas stations and autos, was dragged down substantially by a plunge in car sales and by lukewarm back-to-school shopping.
Analysts such as Lindsey M. Piegza of Sterne Agee attributed the decline to "tepid job creation and minimal income growth," as well as "the ongoing shenanigans in Washington."
"Retailers are already initiating holiday discounts to lure in customers," Piegza wrote in a report this week. "But many more see the declining trend in spending, and bracing for a weak holiday season, are lowering sales forecasts and reducing seasonal hiring."
Morgan Stanley researchers wrote that they expect to see "the most intense promotional holiday environment since 2008." Price-slashing may emerge earlier in the season in a panicky attempt to attract shoppers at the expense of profit, according to the report.
In the third quarter, malls featured 20% more promotions than they had a year earlier, researchers wrote. JCPenney, Kohl's and Macy's are all opening their doors to bargain hunters Thanksgiving evening instead of in the wee hours of Black Friday.
"While the ability to spend more is apparent, willingness remains the key question," the Morgan Stanley researchers wrote.
Some retailers, however, will come out ahead.
Morgan Stanley expects the best holiday sales growth to come from American fashion company Michael Kors Holdings, whose stock has surged more than 50% this year. The company, which is not prone to discounting, appeals to women who are interested in accessories, according to researchers.
The report said other probable winners include Victoria's Secret, which avoids "irrational promotions," and Ross Stores Inc., whose discount offerings are likely to draw shoppers away from department stores.
Teen retailers such as Aeropostale, Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle will continue to suffer as young women and girls look for more inexpensive and unique clothing from the likes of Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters, according to Morgan Stanley.
Amazon.com is primed for a strong holiday, hiring 40% more seasonal employees than last year, Morgan Stanley said. The e-commerce giant, along with other online retailers, could grab as much as 13% of Thanksgiving-to-Christmas sales, up from 11% in 2012.
"We expect time-strapped and value-conscious consumers to look online to stretch their dollars further and for convenience," researchers wrote.