- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2004

NEW YORK (AP) — A much-sought sales bonanza for the nation’s retailers appeared not to materialize on the last weekend before Christmas, despite an abundance of deals on toys and apparel.

Merchants needed a hefty sales surge to recoup lost business after a slow start this holiday season. They now will have to rely even more heavily on the final days before Christmas and post-holiday sales to meet forecasts.

“We are not getting the kind of lift we need. Traffic and sales were below expectations” on Saturday, said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. He serves as an adviser for ShopperTrak, which tallies sales results from 30,000 retail outlets.

Total sales were down 7 percent to $6.7 billion on Saturday, compared with the same Saturday last year, according to ShopperTrak. It was scheduled to release sales results for the weekend later yesterday.

Mr. Niemira noted that luxury stores — which have seen robust sales to well-heeled customers who benefited from the economy’s recovery — showed the best performance. Stores such as Sears and J.C. Penney, catering to the mid- to low-income shoppers, attracted big crowds by using deep discounts and expanded shopping hours.

Merchants are being hurt by the lack of must-have items, except in consumer electronics. IPod music players and PlayStation2 video game consoles have become difficult to find in many areas, said Marshal Cohen, senior industry analyst at NPD Group Inc., a market research company based in Port Washington, N.Y.

The increased popularity in gift cards and online spending could be skewing the holiday sales figures. Gift cards are recorded as sales only when they are redeemed at the stores. Online sales, which are expected to increase 20 percent to 26 percent this holiday season, are not included in ShopperTrak’s figures.

Another factor that probably dampened weekend sales is that the season is two days longer, tempting shoppers to delay their buying to get better deals, said Scott Krugman, a National Retail Federation spokesman.

Catrice Smith of New Orleans will be out bargain shopping on Christmas Eve just like she does every year. “That’s when you get the slamming sales,” Miss Smith said.

But procrastinating also carries risks, including not being able to get a popular item such as PlayStation2.

“You can’t find one anywhere in Charlotte,” said Carol Strain, who was at the North Carolina city’s SouthPark Mall Saturday. “I’ve called every Best Buy and Circuit City, and they’re not to be found.”

Wal-Mart, which had stepped up discounting after a disappointing start to the holiday season, reported Saturday an uptick in general merchandise sales the week that ended Friday, noting an improvement in sales of winter merchandise. Company officials reached late Sunday declined to say how sales fared during the weekend.

Sears had “very good customer traffic,” company spokesman Bill Masterson said.

Wally Brewster, senior vice president of General Growth Properties Inc., which operates 220 malls nationwide, expected that sales this past weekend would be up 2 percent to 5 percent compared with year-ago sales. But gift-card sales should rise 20 to 25 percent this season over the same period last year, he said.

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