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Tariffs & Trade Wars Could Scuttle Santa

Could Trump be the Grinch who steals Christmas?

With “Black Friday In July”-type sales abounding this month, thanks in large part to this week’s Amazon Prime Day promotion, merchants and vendors are no longer alone in thinking about the holidays during the summer.

But what do the tech and appliance industries think, as the machinery begins revving up for the fourth quarter to come?

Simply stated, the outlook is mixed, with a heaping helping of positive momentum heading into the holiday season, tempered by the dark cloud of trade wars.

But first the good news: From a consumer perspective, the macro-environment is almost picture perfect. Steve Koenig, the recently promoted market research VP at the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), ticked off a litany of glad tidings for TWICE, including a tight labor market that puts pressure on wage growth, and a University of Michigan consumer sentiment index that, while down from early spring, still remains high.

“The economy continues to hum along and there’s a lot of innovation on the tech side,” Koenig said, which supports “high expectations for positive holiday spending and growth.”

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Indeed, the CTA itself has projected a 2.2 percent increase in full-year factory shipments, to $266.2 billion, which would put 2018 in line with the industry average of 2 to 3 percent annual growth. (The trade group is releasing an updated forecast next week, but no significant shifts are expected.)

The outlook is even rosier on the appliance side. Peter Weedfald, sales and marketing senior VP at Sharp Home Appliances, makers of best-selling countertop and built-in microwave combi-ovens and drawers, is anticipating “a whopping set of results in the November-December time frame.” Based on his dealings with retailers and distributors — and an ideal economic backdrop of low unemployment, growing GDP and balanced inflation — he foresees record Internet sales and “very, very strong buying and selling” in the third and fourth quarters. “I can see it, I can feel it,” he said.

Even the calendar is working in Saint Nick’s favor. John Fetto, senior research analyst at website tracking service Hitwise, noted that the forthcoming holiday season will be the longest possible, with 34 shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and an extra Monday before Santa’s arrival.

Watch: Black Friday 2018 Predictions From Consumer Reports’ Jim Willcox

But others are less sanguine about the holiday season to come, including Best Buy. After an eye-opening first quarter in which same-store sales jumped 7.1 percent, the No. 1 CE retailer is expecting a more muted second-half, with full-year, companywide comps coming in between flat and up 2 percent, chief financial officer Corie Barry forecasted.

The guarded outlook was echoed by ProSource CEO Dave Workman, whose buying group members also enjoyed an especially robust first quarter. But now, though business remains good and his custom installers are still “turnin’ and burnin’,” the intensity of the uptick has cooled. That leaves Workman to wonder if it’s just a case of the traditional summer doldrums or whether the early spring sales thaw was an anomaly.

Among his other Q4 concerns is the absence of “a compelling halo product to overdrive demand,” plus reports of lowered TV purchase intent in June.

“Big categories aren’t tracking as projected,” Workman noted, and stock market volatility is making consumers somewhat skittish.

And even the brightest of Yuletide projections are darkened by the prospect of further rounds of tariffs and an escalating trade war. The more price-resilient appliance industry had its first taste of tariffs in January, when the Trump administration imposed a 20 percent surcharge on imported washers, arguably opening the door to a steep round of cost increases in April.

Now, with a trade war in full bloom following this month’s $34 billion broadside against Chinese-made goods, and another $200 billion in sanctions on deck, businesses are running scared.

“American consumers are one step closer to feeling the full effects of a trade war,” cautioned Matthew Shay, president/CEO of the National Retail Federation (NRF), who warned of higher prices on everything from flash drives and remote controls to thermostats and dorm-room refrigerators.

Watch: Black Friday Predictions From LG’s John Taylor

Additional tariffs “would destroy thousands of American jobs and raise prices on virtually everything sold in our stores,” he said.

Although the tech industry has been spared thus far, CTA’s Koenig agreed that more tariffs “will present more headwinds to economic growth” by introducing greater uncertainty into the marketplace and provoking a possible pushback from consumers on price.

“We endorse free and open markets,” he said. “We don’t believe tariffs are helpful; they are not the answer.”

ProSource’s Workman is keeping an eagle eye trained on that potential $200 billion secondary round of surcharges, which target TVs and other CE. The question, he said, is how vendors will respond.

“No one wants to raise prices in the middle of a product year,” he noted. “If demand is slowing, this tariff situation couldn’t come at a worse time.”

If push comes to shove, Workman believes tech manufacturers would likely “suck it up as best they could. I would be really, really surprised to see a new price sheet on Sept. 1.”

See: Christmas In July: CTA’s Holiday Crystal Ball

“Manufacturers would have to make some tough choices,” Koenig concurred. Passing along price increases to retailers and consumers could shrink their market share and even their showroom shelf space, although “taking the hit and absorbing the cost” could impact their bottom lines.

“There’ll probably be some give-and-take between retailers and manufacturers,” Koenig said.

Sharp’s Weedfald believes “there could be a thinning of the herd if there’s a trade war,” with licensed and third-tier brands, which are already working on skinnier margins, taking the biggest hit. Nonetheless, he’s hopeful that the threat of widening tariffs is a merely a negotiating tactic by the president.

Koenig said CTA also remains hopeful for a happy outcome to the trade talks. “That would be the best holiday gift,” he agreed.

In the meantime added Workman, “Everyone will sit on pins and needles as we go into the fourth quarter with a greater degree of uncertainty than last year.”

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