- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Many stores, with Christmas only a week away, are finding themselves in the perennial position of counting on procrastinators to meet their sales goals, despite early reports of solid sales over the weekend.

With some exceptions, stores have generally stuck to planned discounts throughout the holiday season, not buckling to pressure from shoppers who are waiting for the best deals. That’s good news for retailers’ fourth-quarter profits.

But it also makes it more nerve-racking as merchants wait for the big sales surge. After pulling in better-than-expected crowds on Black Friday last month, the start of the holiday shopping season, customers have been returning to stores at a slower-than-expected pace after a post-Thanksgiving lull.

Shoppers did hunt early for certain greatly desired toys such as Fisher-Price’s T.M.X. Elmo and Sony’s PlayStation 3, and popular consumer electronics such as flat-panel TVs. Pricey fashions and jewelry as well as status handbags have been popular, too, but for most of the other merchandise, particularly apparel, consumers are dilly-dallying.

“The general consumer consensus is that they have time,” said Kim Roffey, a strategist at Kurt Salmon Associates. “That’s great for consumers, but nerve-racking for retailers.”

With Christmas falling on a Monday, shoppers know they have a full weekend before the holiday. Merchants, however, still were hoping that shoppers would be a bit more motivated to buy as Hanukkah occurred earlier this year than last year.

“I shop for all of my gifts on Christmas Eve,” said Theresa Watson, of Detroit, who was at Eastland Mall near Detroit. “I get up real early knowing that’s what I’ll be doing all day and then I wrap gifts all night. That’s my tradition.”

She added, “There’s all kinds of deals. Everyone’s trying to get rid of everything.”

Chris Mahoney of Rotterdam, N.Y., who was at the Colonie Center Mall in Albany, N.Y., said: “I pretty much started my shopping last week.”

Clearly, this holiday season, the nation’s stores have made it easier for consumers to procrastinate with extended hours and attractive deals in the final days. J.C. Penney Co. had an 18-hour “blowout sale” Saturday.

Meanwhile, Toys “R” Us aims to pull in procrastinators by having huge shipments of the hard-to-find toys delivered to stores this week. They include more than 65,000 T.M.X. Elmo units, more than 30,000 Fisher-Price’s Kid Tough Digital Cameras and more than 6,000 PlayStation 3 consoles.

Jerry Storch, chairman and chief executive officer of Toys “R” Us, said the toy seller is better stocked with the most-desired toys in the final days before Christmas compared with years past.

“We made this an intense focus,” he said. “We expect this week to be huge.”

The retail industry is being forced to kowtow to consumers who are “shopping much smarter than they use to,” said Craig R. Johnson, president of retail consulting firm Customer Growth Partners. “Unless it is an exclusive item or the supply is limited, they are not going to pay full price.”

Early reports last weekend were encouraging. Macerich Co., which operates 80 malls nationwide including Tysons Corner Center, said that traffic was up 15 percent for the week ended Saturday compared with the previous week, according to Garry Butcher, vice president of research.

Karen MacDonald, spokeswoman at Taubman Centers, reported that a sampling of malls showed sales increases of anywhere from mid-single digits to low-double digits Saturday, from the year-ago period.

She noted, however, that stores were taking additional markdowns on winter items such as snow boots and gloves amid mild temperatures.

Nonetheless, analysts say that the gap between the winners and losers is only widening.

The toy industry has been helped by a plethora of the most-wanted toys, giving analysts hope that the industry will see sales declines reversed. Mr. Storch, of Toys “R” Us, said he has been “pleased with results.”

Ernie Speranza, chief marketing officer at KB Toys, said buyer traffic over the weekend was up over a year ago, but said he expects KB to meet holiday sales goals by the end of January. “It is no longer a two-month period,” he said.

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