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Holiday Season Seems To Have Helped Struggling Retail Industry


Throughout this year, we've had a lot of stories about how bad things are for retailers. There have been a bunch of store closings and bankruptcies. And the question heading into Christmas was whether the holiday would deliver any help. Well, it seems it did. Sales are up 4.9 percent from last year according to a Mastercard spending report. And joining us now to discuss all this is NPR's Uri Berliner. Hiya.


SIEGEL: What got people in the mood to shop this holiday season?

BERLINER: So in a lot of ways, the stars have been aligned for retailers over the holidays. You know, consumers are pretty upbeat. Unemployment is very low. Its 4.1 percent. And the stock market's booming. And you know, that makes people in the market feel wealthier, so they're willing to spend more. But - and I want to say it's not just affluent people who've been spending more. The gains have really been across the board.

SIEGEL: So there are economic trends. But also the weather and the calendar have played a role.

BERLINER: Right. The weather's been pretty good around the country. And the calendar was just teed up perfectly for retailers. Over this past weekend, there were two more shopping days before Christmas. And Saturday was a really big day for sales.

SIEGEL: So what have people been buying?

BERLINER: Well, as you'd expect, a lot of the buying has been happening online. Mastercard says online sales are up more than 18 percent. And from the early data, it looks like electronics did especially well - smart speakers, smartphones even robot vacuums, also furniture, home improvement items. But people also say they're not just buying gifts that come in wrapping paper. They're treating people to experiences. So that could be a day trip, a massage, tickets to a ballgame or a meal out.

SIEGEL: Now, there's another category of spending with a new name. It's called self-gifting - doesn't mean you're giving yourself to somebody else, does it? No, it means that you're making a gift to yourself.

BERLINER: That's right. So gifting has been turned into a verb. And self-gifting is jargoning, as you say, for spending on yourself. And apparently there's a lot more of it over the holiday season. A survey from Deloitte said 50 percent of people said they would shop for themselves in addition to buying presents for others.

SIEGEL: But for all the seasonal good news, Uri, this has been an awful year for retailers - bankruptcy filings by companies such as Payless and Toys R Us, thousands of store closings by other household names. Doesn't that change this picture?

BERLINER: Well, it depends on the company. So some retailers like Lowe's, Home Depot and Walmart - their stocks have really rallied in recent months. But for others, especially these middle-market companies that sell clothing and these retailers with a lot of locations at shopping malls - they're still in really tough shape. You know, this is a story that's been going on for years now - the brick-and-mortar retailers just getting crushed by online sellers, especially Amazon. And you know, people don't go to shopping malls like they used to to hang out as a destination. You know, the Internet has changed a lot of that.

Well, one other thing, though, is that the U.S. just has a lot of retail space compared to other wealthy countries. Companies went on these borrowing binges back in the 1990s, built a lot of stores, and they're paying a price for that now.

SIEGEL: NPR's Uri Berliner, thanks.

BERLINER: Thanks, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As Senior Business Editor at NPR, Uri Berliner edits and reports on economics, technology and finance. He provides analysis, context and clarity to breaking news and complex issues.
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