- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

A spike in last-minute shopping and after-Christmas buying helped boost holiday sales, putting retailers on track for their strongest season since 1999.

Retailers needed last week’s sales increase to make up for a lackluster season that was plagued by snowstorms in the Northeast and consumers’ holding out for bigger sales and deeper discounts.

“As we expected, shoppers waited to the very end of the season to make the bulk of their purchases,” said Michael Niemira, chief economist and director of research at the International Council of Shopping Centers. “A late holiday surge before and after Christmas Day pushed retail sales up and essentially made the season for retailers, as procrastinating shoppers and post-Christmas bargain hunters opened their wallets.”

Total sales for the week ending Dec. 27 increased nearly 25 percent over the same week last year, according to ShopperTrak, which measures retail sales. Sales at stores open at least a year were up 5.5 percent last week, compared with the same period in 2002, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS retail chain store index.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) estimated that holiday sales would reach $217.4 billion — a 5.7 percent increase over last year. Last year, holiday sales increased just 2.2 percent over 2001. In 1999, holiday sales increased 8.2 percent over the previous year.

“It’s certainly the best [season] in the last four years,” said Dave Brennan, co-director of the Institute for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. “I’m pretty optimistic. We are moving into a stronger economic recovery.”

It’s too early to tell how stores officially fared this season. Most retailers will report December sales on Jan. 8. Throughout the Thanksgiving to Christmas period, retailers posted mixed results. Some specialty and online retailers posted increases, while other stores had disappointing sales.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said last week that holiday sales at stores open at least a year would hit the low-end of its expectations.

Sharper Image, an upscale seller of electronics and other items, boosted its fourth-quarter profit forecast the day after Christmas, and women’s clothing retailer Chico’s FAS said December same-store sales might rise as much as 21 percent.

Internet sales were expected to break records this holiday season. Online sales from Nov. 1 through Dec. 26 reached $11.7 billion, a 29 percent increase compared with a year ago, according to ComScore Networks Inc.

Online giant Amazon.com said it had its busiest holiday season ever and set a single-day record with more than 2.1 million items ordered. The company wouldn’t say which day that was.

Retail experts say several factors contributed to the season’s sporadic sales, which started out strong the Friday after Thanksgiving but slowed in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Many shoppers, holding out for bargains, waited for retailers to drop prices before spending. However, retailers were reluctant to slash prices early in the season. Merchants managed their inventories better this year to avoid being stuck with excess merchandise at the end of the season.

“They thought they would be able to hold back in terms of sharp discounts,” Mr. Brennan said. “But they caved in.”

For many retailers, the season has extended beyond Christmas with gift cards, which are not considered a sale until they are redeemed.

“I think we are looking at a permanent change in the character of the holiday shopping season in America,” said Richard Hastings, retail analyst at credit tracker Bernard Sands. “Gift cards are now considered a solid, desirable gift, not a cop-out.”

The NRF estimates gift cards will make up 8 percent, or $17 billion, of holiday sales this year.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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