The good news for U.S. retailers is that the just-ended Christmas shopping season was probably the best one in a decade. The bad news? Some chains are still struggling to benefit from the industry's upswing.
Consumer confidence is high, unemployment is low, and Americans are increasing spending -- with some third-party data showing holiday purchases up about 5 percent. But what Christmas 2017 may end up crystallizing is that a rising tide doesn't lift all boats. A few major retailers, including Amazon.com Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Home Depot Inc., are expected to reap an oversized share of the gains.
For department-store chains and apparel sellers, it may be harder to please investors -- leading to more doomsday talk for the brick-and-mortar sector.
"The money and the sales are gravitating toward fewer and fewer players," said Ken Perkins, president of research firm Retail Metrics Inc. "There are a lot of tailwinds behind these retailers, but they aren't generating a whole lot of profit growth."
The uncertainties have kept Wall Street analysts from fully feeling the Christmas cheer. They estimate that retail earnings will rise a tepid 2.7 percent in the fourth quarter, according to Retail Metrics. The forecast has climbed half a percentage point over the past month, but it's still far from the 11 percent profit gain expected for the entire Standard & Poor's 500 Index.
The question now is whether companies can exceed those low expectations. Macy's Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. saw their shares plunge last year, leaving room for upside if their holiday seasons were a pleasant surprise.
Broadly speaking, there's plenty for investors to be excited about. Craig Johnson, head of Customer Growth Partners, predicted last month that holiday sales would gain 5.6 percent. That would be the best growth since 2005. The industry posted a 6.1 percent increase that year, when the economy was still thriving and a hot housing market was boosting spending.
"This retail recovery this season is about as good as it gets," Johnson said. "It was a stellar season."
Still, the holiday period was starkly different than it was in 2005. Chains in enclosed malls, which are anchored by struggling department stores, are still seeing fewer visitors.
Those disparities played out in December, according to First Data's SpendTrend. Same-store sales at department stores through Dec. 25 declined more than 6 percent. Men's and women's clothing chains fell 1 percent. Meanwhile, discounters, shoe stores, electronics outlets and luxury brands all gained.
Retail also missed out on a lot of discretionary spending. The industry gained 3.1 percent in November and just 1.5 percent last month, according to First Data. Overall purchases -- including restaurants, grocery and gasoline -- rose 5.3 percent each month.
Americans are still shying away from conspicuous consumption, according to Sarah Quinlan, senior vice president at Mastercard Inc., which tracks purchasing patterns. People are spending on their homes, because values are going up and they see it as an investment. They're also purchasing more experiences, like travel and activities, she said.
"They don't overbuy," Quinlan said. People are avoiding "stuff they don't need."
One variable is how much the recent tax overhaul figured into shoppers' decisions.
Though the legislation might not have made a big difference for holiday consumers, it could help fuel retail spending in 2018 if Americans find more money in their paychecks, Johnson said.
"These are all the ingredients for a sustained retail boom over the next year, and possibly into 2019," he said.