- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 28, 2004

NEW YORK — The start of the holiday season was respectable but unimpressive for many of the nation’s retailers, with consumers jamming stores and malls on Friday and pulling back as the weekend wore on.

Big chains, including J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Sears, Roebuck and Co., were pleased with their sales. But Wal-Mart Stores Inc. was less fortunate — the industry leader said its sales in the seven days that ended Friday were disappointing, and the company lowered its sales forecasts for November.

“Friday overall was strong, but Saturday was weak and disappointing, so together it was only a modest two-day performance,” said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. “Still, I continue to believe that this is not a bellwether for how the season will end up.”

Wally Brewster, spokesman at Chicago-based General Growth Properties, which operates 224 malls in 44 states, said sales and traffic were strong on Friday but “stabilized” the rest of the weekend. As a result, he expects sales for the weekend to increase in the low single digits, in line with modest expectations.

Wal-Mart’s holiday weekend sales suffered because it didn’t offer the deep discounts it had in past years, hoping to boost profits, analysts said. Penney and Sears did better by wooing customers with two days of big price breaks.

“Wal-Mart was a big loser because they didn’t get the same numbers of early-bird shoppers as they did a year ago,” said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group in Charleston, S.C. “The retailers that won this weekend were the ones that were super aggressive in special purchases and special pricing.”

Wal-Mart said Saturday that it now expects same-store sales to be up 0.7 percent, instead of the projected 2 percent to 4 percent.

Without any must-haves in apparel and toys, the main attractions were electronics, particularly flat-screen TVs and DVD players, benefiting stores such as Best Buy Co. Inc. and Circuit City Stores Inc. Marshal Cohen, senior industry analyst at NPD Group Inc. in Port Washington, N.Y., suspects that many mall-based apparel retailers “took it on the chin.”

Mr. Niemira, who serves as an adviser for ShopperTrak, which tallies sales results from 30,000 outlets and which released sales data for Friday, said a clearer picture of how the Thanksgiving weekend fared will emerge Thursday. That is when the nation’s retailers report their same-store sales figures for November. Total retail sales were up 10.8 percent Friday compared with the day after Thanksgiving last year, ShopperTrak said.

The first weekend of the season, while important, is not as critical as the last 10 days before Christmas. So, despite the lackluster start, Mr. Niemira forecasts a sales gain of 3 percent to 4 percent for the holiday period.

The National Retail Federation expects sales will rise 4.5 percent for the November-December period — less than the 5.1 percent gain a year earlier.

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