A retail season for Scrooge

The Grinch that Stole Christmas and the early Ebenezer Scrooge would have loved this 1990 holiday season. Investors in retailing stocks won't.

Higher gasoline prices are taking money out of shoppers' pockets and placing folks under a psychological cloud. The risk of war and the worries of recession are helping to tip the financial scales in the wrong direction.


Further complicating matters for many retailers, a lot of merchandise orders were made before the Persian Gulf crisis, meaning that companies will be forced to offer discounts to clear out their inventories.

As a result, industry analysts counsel that there's no reason to rush out and shop immediately, for there will be good deals throughout the season.


The consumer slowdown is already evident in fall sales figures. These weak numbers have also been adversely affected by warmer-than-usual weather around the country, making it difficult to move winter clothes out of the stores without discounts.

"This has been one of the worst sales slowdowns I've seen in my 25 years of covering the retailing industry and it seems to be ushering in the worst Christmas retailing season since 1974, right after the Arab oil embargo," said Daniel Barry, retail analyst with Kidder, Peabody. "Expect the biggest promotional Christmas in years."

Barry predicts a meager sales gain of 1 percent to 3 percent this holiday season, which is negative in real terms once inflation is factored in. By comparison, last year's holiday gain was just over 4 percent.

Investors in the stocks of the retailing companies have been taking their lumps, skidding in price like an old sweater on the discount rack.

But take heart. The worst seems to be over for these stocks, their battered prices already taking into account virtually all of the potential negatives.

In fact, retailing stocks may be poised for a strong comeback. The industry's survivors retain strong recognition and prospects.

"The worst of the damage to retailing stocks is over, and, while industry fundamentals will be difficult the next six months, the stocks should do better than the fundamentals," said Margo McGlade, specialty retailing analyst with PaineWebber Inc., who believes "flattish" sales this holiday season won't spell total disaster.

There are favorite stocks, with Wal-Mart Stores and Dayton Hudson both recommended by Barry and Weller.


Besides benefiting from price-consciousness of shoppers this holiday season, Wal-Mart continues to grow. Chairman Sam Walton expects his company to quintuple sales to $125 billion by the year 2000. Dayton Hudson shares are considered cheap, with the acquisition of Marshall Field's helping its bottom line in .. the long run. Furthermore, Dayton Hudson's Target chain will expand, and improved operating efficiency is expected at its Mervyn's division.

Barry also likes the shares of Price Co., an good establishment for bargain-hunters. Toys "R" Us is another selection.

"There will be a spectacular rally in the retailing stocks next year, with investors finally looking elsewhere than the current oil and defense industry stocks," said Barry.

Weller expects retailing stocks to outperform the rest of the market, with one of his favorites being Merry-Go-Round Enterprises, a chain ready for a strong comeback. His other picks are Costco Wholesale, May Co. and J.C. Penney. Meanwhile, McGlade recommends the shares of the Staples Inc. office supply chain and Tiffany Co.