Predicting the success of the holiday season for retailers is often as reliable as visiting a Boardwalk psychic: You believe what you want to believe - and then the passage of time proves the prognosticator wrong or right.
For several years now, in the weeks after Black Friday, largely industry-friendly groups have released data that often trumpeted shoppers' spending as robust, even gangbusters, as if high unemployment and a dour economy were just a mirage.
Then in January and February, when companies reported their actual financial results, the truth came out. That truth has largely shown many retailers struggling to make healthy profits since the financial crisis of 2008 produced a stubborn new breed of cautious American consumer.
So how are things looking this time around?
One Narberth financial surgeon, who has spent decades helping troubled companies clean up their finances or end their misery through bankruptcy, did not like what he saw in the stores as he shopped for gifts.
Thomas D. Hays III, principal of NHB Advisors, knows what a healthy company's balance sheet looks like and knows the poison that makes for an unhealthy one: lack of profit. And what he saw in store after store were sales that seemed to trade profitability for the promise of just ringing up transactions.
"I could not believe the amount of constant and heavy discounting," Hays said.
The first thing that set off his financial-crisis radar was seeing how, at one men's clothier, shoppers who bought one item would receive two more free.
"So that got me looking at some of these sales on consumer electronics," Hays said. Then "I went into Macy's and just was floored by the net pricing."
What Hays saw all around him was a sight familiar to anyone who's shopped for more than a minute in recent years: merchandise, tagged with lofty original ticket prices, being sold at steep markdowns.
"You start out with normal retail, but then things get discounted and discounted and discounted, and I just can't see how there's any room for [profit] margin there," said Hays, whose firm worked on the bankruptcy liquidation of the 1,500-store Merry-Go-Round chain in 1999.
"If they're discounting this deeply to get just minuscule sales increases," Hays warned in an interview this week, "that's a real issue."
Hays does not have any current retail clients and says he does not monitor the industry at close range the way that, say, financial analysts do for the investment community. Most of what he surmised was drawn from anecdotal observation and a gut feeling.
If he's right, 2012 will usher in more store closings along the lines of what Sears and Kmart announced this week. Their parent company said Tuesday it would close 100 to 120 locations because laggard sales of consumer electronics and apparel over the holidays contributed to a disappointing end to so crucial a time.
The other outcome, Hays said, is more retailers going bankrupt. Many wait till after the holidays to file for Chapter 11 or Chapter 7, he said, to clear a threshold in bankruptcy law that reduces their obligation to repay vendors that have recently supplied them with merchandise.
Over the last three years, many retailers already have taken measures to reduce overhead by shutting stores, cutting staff, and negotiating rent reductions from landlords. And some in the industry say the worst days are behind them.
But one thing continues to dog store-based retailers: It's much cheaper to sell goods online than to pay for rent, electricity, heat and air-conditioning, cash-register staff, janitors, and everything else associated with a bricks-and-mortar store. And online retailers are continuing to see sales grow by a lot; not so store-based retailers.
Online spending from November through Dec. 26 increased 15 percent over the same period last year, comScore Inc., which tracks retail e-commerce activity, reported Wednesday.
"The product mix going over the Internet is increasing over time substantially," Hays said, "and that means that there are less sales dollars to cover the costs of these stores, of these bricks-and-mortar stores."
In a few weeks, the numbers will be out. What follows, only a psychic can know.