Sun, Dec 28, 2003 - Page 11 News List

US holiday sales dubbed normal, solid and boring

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , New York

As sales results began to trickle in Friday, it became clear that this year's holiday season was only ho-hum for most retailers in the US, far from the one bursting with consumer cheer they had once hoped for.

But it was at least an improvement from last year's holiday season, which was called the most disappointing in a decade. Estimates of the overall gain this year ranged from 3.5 percent to 5.7 percent Friday, with experts still holding fast to their projections of a month ago.

Instead of "disastrous" and "dismal," the words used to describe last year's holiday season, analysts and retailers used words like "normal" and "solid" this year -- with several adding "boring." In September, merchants had hoped for double-digit growth.

But as the season wound up -- most do not count the holidays ending until Dec. 31 -- there were some flip-flops on estimates for individual retailers.

Few this fall, for instance, could have guessed that Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, would stumble, heading for the low end of its forecast with a modest 3 percent to 5 percent gain this month -- in part because of a turnaround in the luxury goods market. High-end retailers like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue reported strong sales coming into the holidays.

Friday, shoppers, starved by the lack of across-the-board discounting at major retailers before Christmas, packed stores advertising early bird specials. At Saks, a chain not known for discounts, the doors opened at 8am to welcome shoppers who had lined up for marked-down merchandise lowered by an additional 40 percent.

By 11am, Kimiko Takiota, 21, and her mother, Noriko Takiota, 51, who were shopping on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, were already clutching three big red Saks bags, which contained, among other things, three pairs of Ferragamo shoes.

"They were US$350, US$400 for all of them," said the younger Takiota, an au pair in Philadelphia. "In Toyko, they are US$600 a pair!"

"Yes, yes, bargains," added Mrs. Takiota, who was visiting the US for the first time.

At the flagship Macy's store in Herald Square, crowds fingered everything from cappuccino makers to T-shirts, much of it marked down 50 percent.

The retail winners, some of them surprising, that emerged Friday included Sharper Image, Chico's, which markets clothing with a bit of pizazz to baby-boomer women, and Amazon.com. Chico's and Sharper Image raised their earnings estimates.

Partly because three snowstorms blanketed much of the Northeast during two valuable shopping weekends, consumers turned more to the Internet and to catalog sellers like LL Bean for their gifts. One analyst said LL Bean and Lands' End, the catalog merchant owned by Sears, both set records in the five days before Christmas -- as did QVC, a cable television shopping show -- but no one was available at the companies to confirm that Friday.

As for online sales, the National Retail Federation predicted Friday that they would increase to US$95.6 billion for the full year from US$75.7 billion last year, 5 percent to 7 percent of total retail spending. Last year, online apparel sales were 28 percent higher than they were in 2001; this year, they were 54 percent higher than last year, according to the group.

The federation, based in Washington, defended its estimate for a 5.7 percent increase, which has been criticized by some analysts as too generous. The federation's estimate includes sales through the last week of December, which some others do not, said Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman.

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