Holiday traffic could fall 9.9 percent: ShopperTrak

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Retail stores may be much less crowded this holiday season, as one research firm sees foot traffic sliding a record 9.9 percent as shoppers suffer from the weak economy and low consumer confidence.

Shoppers walk through the Manhattan Mall in New York November 21, 2007. REUTERS/Jacob Silberberg

ShopperTrak, which also sees a record-low increase in sales during the same period of 0.1 percent, said retailers have experienced a “perfect storm” of high gasoline prices, collapsing stock markets and a presidential election that distracted shoppers.

“Due to numerous factors that retailers can’t control, 2008 has been a challenging year and it seems this pattern will continue throughout the crucial holiday shopping season,” Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak, said in a statement.

“Currently we’re anticipating the lowest retail sales and total U.S. traffic numbers we’ve seen since we started compiling this data in 2001, which will most likely leave retailers scrambling to entice consumers into their stores early and often during the holidays,” he added.

ShopperTrak measures foot traffic mainly in mall-based retailers and it does not capture traffic at many busy big-box retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc WMT.N, Target Corp TGT.N and Best Buy Co Inc. BBY.N.

ShopperTrak defines the holiday season in its study as the full months of November and December, although the bulk of the activity takes place in the traditional holiday season between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The ShopperTrak Retail Traffic Index is based on data from more than 50,000 retail and mall locations throughout the United States.

In November, ShopperTrak sees foot traffic and sales off 12.1 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively. In December, it sees foot traffic off 8.1 percent, while sales are expected to rise 0.6 percent.

Last year’s holiday shopping season saw traffic fall 2.7 percent, while sales rose 2.5 percent, ShopperTrak said.

Martin pointed out that the 2008 holiday shopping season has only 27 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, five days less than the prior year, because of a late Thanksgiving.

“This means retailers should see some strength earlier in the season on Black Friday due to pent-up demand, but also means procrastinators may be caught by surprise late in the year,” he said.

This year could resemble the 2002 holiday season, which also reflected a 27-day shopping period, a recession and a national election, though not a presidential one, ShopperTrak said. Following the 2002 election, enclosed mall traffic averaged a 3.9 percent year-over-year decline through the rest of the holiday shopping season.

“Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, is expected to be the busiest traffic day of the holiday season, and the Saturday before Christmas -- December 20 -- is forecast to be the second-busiest day of the season, followed by the day after Christmas, Friday, December 26 -- a big day for exchanges and returns.

Reporting by Ben Klayman, editing by Gerald E. McCormick