- The Washington Times - Friday, December 5, 2008

Retailers got some help from Black Friday sales, but not enough to keep them out of the red in November.

“It’s an awful beginning to the holiday season,” said Mike Niemira, chief economist and director of research for the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC).

The dismal numbers, which show chain store sales falling a record 2.7 percent in November, have prompted some retailers to downgrade their already conservative holiday projections.

The ICSC is now projecting that sales will increase by a scant 1.5 percent for December, much lower than usual and offering no respite from the low numbers of November.

Part of the problem may be that shoppers just have less time to shop, Mr. Niemira said. Thanksgiving fell later than usual this year, shortening the period between Black Friday and Christmas Eve, the traditional beginning and end of the season.

Losing a few shopping days is only a minor contributor to the lackluster sales projections, however, said Dan Howard, a professor of marketing at Southern Methodist University.

“Everybody is paying attention to price this season. Everyone is paying attention to their wallets,” he said.

The state of the economy has worked in Wal-Mart’s favor as the discount retailer was the only chain to post profits in November. Wal-Mart’s combination of low prices and active promotion helped encourage the cash-strapped to spend.

The immediate reaction of consumers is to save whatever money they can in a crisis, Mr. Howard said, and only very deep discounts on the part of retailers can coax shoppers into their stores, much less make sales.

As the discounts continue, however, last-minute shoppers may be rewarded as retailers do all they can to avoid being stuck with leftover inventory.

The weekend before Christmas traditionally posts the most sales of the season. If shoppers are willing to wait, they could be greeted with bargains.

As good as the last-minute deals may be for consumers, retailers have more factors in their favor in the week leading up to Christmas, Mr. Howard said, as shoppers no longer have the luxury of comparing prices and mulling over their purchases.

“Consumers are just going to be more picky,” said Dawn Iacobucci, a professor of marketing at the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management in Nashville, Tenn.

It is the desire to get the best price that has lured some shoppers to the Internet this holiday shopping season as the technology makes price comparisons easier.

Many shoppers may have forgone the crush of Black Friday in brick-and-mortar stores and waited for Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving that is usually profitable for online retailers.

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