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This Is Retailers’ Latest Excuse for Lousy Sales

Rubber Masks Of Hilary Clinton And Donald Trump Manufactured In JapanRubber Masks Of Hilary Clinton And Donald Trump Manufactured In Japan
Blame them.Photograph by Tomohiro Ohsumi — Getty Images

Barnes & Noble (BKS) reported awful quarterly results this week, and the bookseller put the blame squarely on a new culprit among retailers: the U.S. presidential elections.

Barnes & Noble said comparable store sales fell 6% in the first fiscal quarter, with that drop primarily from weak book sales. The company has been riven by a lot of drama lately, having ousted its CEO in August after less than a year. And on its investor call Thursday, Barnes & Noble admitted to investors that it had shot itself in the foot by cutting staff hours and lowering inventory too much.

But founder, chairman, top shareholder, and ex- and interim-CEO Leonard Riggio said he could trace the shopper traffic drop “precisely” to the current elections, which he said has generated “unprecedented” fear among shoppers.

“The preoccupation with this election is keeping them at home glued to their TVs and their desktops,” said Riggio, who built a single New York bookstore he bought in the 1970s into the largest U.S. bookstore chain. He’d previously stepped down as CEO in 2002.

Other consumer-facing companies have echoed Barnes & Noble’s lament.

“When a consumer is a little uncertain around their future and really trying to figure out what this election cycle really means to them, they’re not as apt to spend as freely as they might have even just a couple of quarters ago,” Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor told investors last month.

His counterpart at McDonald’s (MCD), Steve Easterbrook, sounded a similar note when he said in July that customers are gauging “their financial security going forward” through elections. And this summer in an interview with CNBC, HSN (HSNI) CEO Mindy Grossman said the elections are making shoppers hesitant to shop.


But while the current race for the White House is certainly the most intriguing spectacle in years, blaming Clinton vs. Trump for fewer shoppers just doesn’t hold up.

For one thing, many high-flying retailers such as The Home Depot (HD) and Ulta Beauty (ULTA) have reported strong results, whileWalmart (WMT), whose clientele mirrors the U.S. public, reported good numbers, as did B&N nemesis (AMZN).

For another, the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index, which is one of the widest measures of how optimistic shoppers are, hit an 11-month high in August. (B&N’s quarter ended July 30 but confidence had been building for months.).

If Barnes & Noble wants to point a finger, it should find a mirror. Online sales fell 1.6% last quarter, meaning that if Riggio is right and customers were indeed glued to their desktops, the chain failed to capitalize on that, making it one of the few retailers with shrinking e-commerce.

To be fair, even successful retailers have pointed to the election as a potential problem for stores. Ulta Beauty CEO Mary Dillon called the election a “wildcard.” But retailers and restaurants have a habit of finding new pretexts for poor results. One quarter it’s gas prices and another it’s the weather. Now election agita is the sector’s new excuse.