- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

A surge in last-minute shopping and a busy day after Christmas could give retailers the boost they need to make this a jolly holiday season.

Retailers are holding out hope that this week will bring in much-needed sales.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s December sales were increasing about 2 percent as Christmas shoppers crowded stores last week. That falls in line with the company’s forecast of a 1 percent to 3 percent gain from a year earlier, the Bentonville, Ark., retailer said yesterday, but it is far below Wal-Mart’s 4.3 percent increase in sales from a year ago.

The world’s largest retailer struggled in the beginning of the season when November sales rose less than expected at 0.7 percent.

The National Retail Federation is expecting November and December sales to increase 4.5 percent over last year’s figures to $219.9 billion. The holiday season accounts for nearly one-quarter of retailers’ annual sales.

Final sales numbers for December won’t be released until Jan. 6.

Sharper Image Corp., which said holiday store traffic was lighter than anticipated, is blaming ineffective advertising and a lack of hot holiday items.

“Overall, our sales this holiday season were disappointing,” said Richard Thalheimer, company founder, chairman and chief executive officer.

Through Friday, sales increased 4 percent, which is trending below Sharper Image’s expectations for an increase in total sales of 15 percent to 18 percent in the fourth quarter.

Visa USA said sales on its credit cards reached $4.35 billion on Christmas Eve, an increase of 11.7 percent over Dec. 24 last year. The credit-card association posted a spike in sales at discounters, mass merchants, drugstores, department and apparel retailers, and home and garden merchants.

“Considering the post-holiday sales that retailers are offering, we expect that spending in the coming days will continue to rise over last year,” said Wayne Best, senior vice president of strategic and economic analysis for Visa USA.

The mid- to low-price stores — whose customers are more vulnerable to the economy’s woes and this year’s high energy prices — sweetened discounts the day after Christmas, which was the third-busiest day of the holiday shopping season last year.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. took an additional 20 percent off its already-reduced apparel for up to 60 percent savings. In addition, all televisions and home theater systems were on sale, and the store offered 50 percent off all toys and 50 percent to 75 percent of all Christmas shop items.

Spokeswoman Lisa Gibbons said traffic the day after Christmas was about level with a year ago, and consumers were buying apparel.

Tim Lyons, a spokesman at J.C. Penney Co. Inc., said this past week was about “where we expected.” The Midwest storms delayed sales until the end of the week, which saw a pickup in such items as coats and gloves.

“Overall, we are comfortable with where we are,” said Mr. Lyons, who is sticking to the company’s November and December forecast for same-store sales gains to be up by low single digits. Same-store sales, considered the best indicator of a retailer’s health, measure sales at stores open at least a year.

Online retailers have had a strong season.

ComScore Networks, a research firm, expects online retail sales to exceed $15 billion during the holiday period — an increase of 23 percent to 26 percent from November and December last year.

Amazon.com said it set a single-day record of more than 2.8 million orders — about one-third more than its holiday record last year. Amazon, which would not disclose which day it set the record, said its 10th holiday season was its best ever.

Retailers still are counting on gift cards to bring in sales when shoppers spend them in the next several weeks. Gift cards are not considered a sale until they are redeemed.

Consumers were expected to spend more than $17 billion on gift cards this season — up $100 million from last year, the National Retail Federation said.

Wal-Mart said its sale of gift cards is up “significantly” from last year.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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