- The Washington Times - Friday, December 6, 2002

November retail sales weren't exactly festive news for the nation's retailers as many reported modest business despite the start of the all-important holiday shopping season.
But some analysts say a shift in the calendar this year is to blame for the tepid pace of November sales. The Thanksgiving weekend, which traditionally ushers in holiday shopping, fell so late in the month this year it left only two days of increased traffic to add to the month's sales.
"The jury is still out," said Michael Baker, director of research at the International Council of Shopping Centers. "Retailers are divided into seasons. You have to bunch November and December [sales] together."
U.S. retailers' same-store sales sales at stores open at least a year dropped 0.1 percent last month, the first November decline in more than 20 years, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd. said.
Wal-Mart Inc., the world's largest retailer, reported just a small gain of 2.6 percent in same-store sales surpassing the results of its rivals. The usual contenders in the retail race each month Target Stores Inc. and Kohl's Corp. had disappointing results with decreases of 6.7 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively.
Same store sales are considered the most accurate indicator of a retailer's health.
Many department stores and mall clothing chains, including Saks Inc., May Department Stores Co. and AnnTaylor Stores Inc., posted high-single-digit declines in sales at stores open at least a year. In general, results barely met analysts' lowered expectations.
One of the biggest retail surprises came from Gap Inc., which has been trying to turn itself around for months. The company, which owns the Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy chains, had a 9 percent gain in stores open at least a year the second increase after 29 months of declines.
"It's good, but let's wait a while," Mr. Baker said, pointing out that Gap reported a 25 percent decrease in sales last year at this time. "Gap is slowly on the mend."
Retail analysts say the Thanksgiving weekend overall was a good start to the holiday shopping season, but it's still too early to tell how the season will shape up. Retailers are luring consumers with deep discounts on toys, electronics and apparel. But many shoppers are wary about splurging on gifts, particularly because of the weakened economy and uncertain job outlook.
"I'm not expecting a blockbuster holiday season by any means," said analyst Keri Spanbauer of Thrivent Investment Management, which handles about $56.1 billion and owns about 1.74 million Wal-Mart Stores Inc. shares.
The National Retail Federation estimates that sales from Thanksgiving to Christmas will increase 4 percent over the same period last year. Retailers are hoping for a 2 percent or 3 percent gain.
More than one third of shoppers said they intend to spend less this holiday than last year, according to a November Deloitte & Touche survey of 13,000 U.S. residents. Only 11 percent said they plan to spend more.
Mr. Baker expects consumer traffic to die down until Dec. 14, which will leave a little less than two weeks before Christmas. As in recent years the Saturday before Christmas Dec. 21 will likely be the busiest shopping day of the season.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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