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Business Was Better, But Caution Prevails

...of sales gains for the group following the 2008 financial meltdown. However, the prevailing outlook remains decidedly cautious. With memories of the financial crisis still fresh, most of the industry’s leading retailers harbor fears of another abrupt downturn. 80% of the retailers surveyed said that their single greatest concern over the next 12 months was “the state of the economy.” Summing up a widely held attitude, one retailer commented, “We had a good year, but I don’t feel at all secure.”

Depending on the data points you rely on, the nation’s economic health is either robust, faltering, or enfeebled. Unemployment clocks in at a moderate 5.5%, but the percentage of the populace with full-time jobs is at the lowest level since the depths of the 1980 recession. The stock market is flirting with all-time highs, yet growth in the gross domestic product is anemic and lower than at any period after World War II. The general public has apparently internalized these conflicting signals as evidenced by wild month-to-month swings in the consumer confidence index. For retailers, these conflicting indicators translate into erratic sales performance. A common survey response is, “It’s hard to put three strong sales months together. Two months will be good, but then the bottom drops out on the third.”

The survey of the Top 200 portrays a challenging retail environment. Brick-and-mortar retailers complain about intensified online competition, while online retailers say they are increasingly squeezed by increasing shipping rates and the high cost of gaining visibility in a crowded internet. Yet these very real challenges don’t seem to have diminished enthusiasm for the business. “I do this because it’s what I love,” is a common survey comment.

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