Tablets & Debts Cloud Canuck Retail Future

The gift-giving season nears. These days a $200 to $500 item is a gift candidate in an upscale society when the Economy is doing well. Though the Microsoft Surface is priced at $499, I expect many gift-givers will stretch beyond the $500 ceiling and spring for an Android or MS tablet. Now that the Apple iPad Mini will soon be available (apparently at just $329+ Cdn!), that will add tablet-mad momentum.

Yes, tablets may end up as THE gift item this season. If a ‘giftee’ already has a tablet, think: add-ons: covers, adapters, chargers, earbuds, etc. We must not forget the ‘regifting’ impact: second-hand tablets on craigslist/ kijiji after gotta-have-the-latest Early Adopters, trade up.

Regifting bypasses retailers: bad news for Canadian Bricks & Mortar Retailers. Tablets are also etail friendly: small, flat, robust, cheap to ship. And all the tablet info you need for a purchase /usage decision is available online. So a Tablet Gift Buying Boom may help etailers more than ‘bricks & mortar’ stores.

Canuck retailers are a resilient lot; they’ll work hard to make bigger bulkier more fragile/ complex items (that are NOT so e-tailer friendly) this season’s OTHER big “It” gift-giving item, but the mood is an insecure one this Season.

Target is coming to Canada, Nordstroms too. Famed expats Old Navy, The Gap, Eddie Bauer, American Eagle, etc are reinvesting to try for new relevance.

Longstanding Canuck retail icons are shifting uneasily. Holts braces for Nordstroms; The Bay’s going public. Le Chateau, Talbots & Reitmans seek a positioning to sustain them in a now hyper-competitive specialty apparel market. Moore’s has gone casual; Harry Rosen is pushing celeb endorsement. Canadian Tire is celebrating emotional heritage ties & Canuck cultural savvy. Loblaws is cutting staff after yet another major I.T. investing wave (perhaps it will fare better than previous inept attempts).

Not all retailers here are shifting: Roots & Lululemon just keep reinforcing their focused positioning; it’s an easy decision to stay with a successful focused role, versus entertain a multiplicity of (risky) repositioning options, as are open to the other Canuck retail apparel players.

One other risk is on the horizon- debt. Canadians already hold debt amounting to 163% of income; ie comparable to levels in other Western nations before their Great Reckoning. Canuck consumer debt is driven by confidence that’s chiefly driven by (i) a positive employment story; and (ii) inordinately inflated real estate valuations.

Retail Relies on Confidence. And in this nation, that confidence rests on a 2-legged stool.

So this particular 2012 Gift-Giving season may go down in memory as a season like no other.

And not in a good way. Tis the season, indeed.

Steven Litt