- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Holiday shoppers probably will be out of luck this year if they wait until the last minute to find that perfect gift.

In an effort to help the bottom line, retailers are stocking less merchandise and managing their inventories more carefully so they won’t be stuck unloading products at rock-bottom prices as the season ends.

“Consumers will see fewer deals by waiting it out,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Bank One. “The discounts will be there, but the selection won’t be. The closer you get to Christmas, the less you’ll see of all-out dumping of merchandise.”

Holiday shoppers often wait until the last minute to take advantage of deep discounts. In years past, prices would be slashed in the days before and after Christmas as retailers unloaded excess merchandise.

That changed last year when retailers began taking control of their inventory.

J.C. Penney Co. has focused its inventory on key merchandise that it expects will be in higher demand.

“We disciplined ourselves to limit our assortments to the more popular items,” said Christi Byrd Smith, a company spokeswoman. A popular sweater, for example, won’t be available in a dozen different colors.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. is basing its selection on the stores’ locations and input. Sears stores in different areas will not necessarily have the same merchandise.

“We’re tailoring our mix of goods on a market-by-market basis,” said company spokesman Chris Brathwaite.

“Retailers want to make sure they shield their bottom lines,” says Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation (NRF), an industry trade group based in the District. “One way to do that best is to manage their inventory well.”

Shoppers this year should buy as soon as they see the item they want, retailers say.

“There’s no guarantee merchandise, especially apparel and shoes, will be on the shelves all season long,” Miss Tolley said.

Retailers typically start ordering holiday merchandise by the end of the first half of the year. At that time, they have to estimate what consumers want and how they will spend.

“It’s a big guessing game,” Miss Tolley said.

The retail trade group is projecting $217.4 billion in holiday sales this year, a 5.7 increase over 2002. Shoppers plan to spend an average $671.89, on gifts, decorations, greeting cards, food and flowers this season, up from $648.85 spent last year, an NRF survey shows.

In addition, consumers say they plan to spend $146.69 on themselves.

As consumer attitudes become clear, retailers will try to lure shoppers early.

Ms. Swonk says shoppers shouldn’t be surprised if the season’s big sales begin the weekend before Thanksgiving.

Nearly 43 percent of consumers — up from 39 percent last year — say they plan to begin their shopping by October, the NRF survey says. Another 35 percent plan to start shopping in November, and the remaining 22 percent plan to wait until December.

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