US retailers have certainly got a spring back in their step if the evidence from last week’s annual get-together at the National Retail Federation (NRF) in New York was anything to go by.
Just like their UK retail cousins, retailers there enjoyed a strong December, with only a very few exceptions. With economic forecasts continuing to predict a strengthening recovery, the contrast between the NRF this year and last was palpable.
Much has been said about how retailers managed their stock levels going into Christmas and if UK stores did well, the evidence looking around New York stores was of even better managed stock. Gone are the signs on iconic stores such as Saks and Bergdorf Goodman advertising 70% off or more, as seen this time last year.
But maybe it’s also too easy to get carried away by America’s natural optimism. Talk to UK retailers and there aren’t many that are seeing December’s strong sales as evidence that happy days are here again.
There are plenty of reasons to still be gloomy if you look beyond the economic growth figures and think instead about the prospect of tax hikes, mounting national debt and major budget cuts with all that that means for consumer spending.
Interestingly, the US is also having to come to terms with historic national debt levels and rising taxes - including even the prospect of a value-added tax.
Pure anathema to many Americans, and for retail grandees such as Allen Questrom - former chief executive of JC Penney and Federated Department Stores - speaking at NRF, there was a note of resignation that taxes of whatever kind will rise. “Pick your poison,” he said, forecasting that whichever taxes rise, it will hit consumer spending in the short term.
So how will US retailers, with their new-found confidence, react to all that 2010 has in store for them? There was much talk about improving the shopper experience with great looking stores and attractive ranges; Allen Questrom urged retailers to continue managing stock levels but also consider international expansion: “If you’re not in it, you ought to figure out a way of doing it.”
Other retailers said it was all about speed to market with new ideas. But for the combative and confidence-boosted Mickey Drexler, boss of fashion group J Crew, it comes down to what he said it has always done: having “great new product, all the time. That’s what we work every day on and it’s what makes the difference.”
Bronx-born Drexler is not someone to argue against. But then seeing his stores and his sales figures, he clearly knows what he is talking about.