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Wed, Dec 29, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Christmas good, but not great, for retailers

VERDICT Analysts breathed a sigh of relief as large chains like Wal-Mart appeared to have hit sales forecasts, while growth in online sales provided a bit of a surprise

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

As customers crammed stores the day after Christmas, waving their gift cards and seeking the latest markdowns, analysts were there, too -- watching. They offered their latest judgment of the Christmas shopping season on Monday: good, but not great.

The analysts, however, were talking mainly about the traditional bricks-and-mortar retail companies. Amazon.com said on Monday that it had set a one-day record during the holiday season of 2.8 million orders (although it did not say which day), adding strength to the strategies of many retailers to beef up or start online stores.

Amazon said its two top-selling categories were books (not surprising) and electronics like DVD players and digital cameras (more surprising).

The other big news on Monday was from Wal-Mart Stores, which reaffirmed predictions that its sales would be in the middle of its revised holiday numbers, that is, 1 percent to 3 percent. Wal-Mart originally predicted a bigger increase, but the US$256 billion chain stumbled over the post-Thanksgiving shopping period, and analysts said they were worried. Monday, some breathed a sigh of relief.

"For all the hand-wringing over Wal-Mart's soft results, the world's largest retailer may be right on plan after all," Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, retail consultants, wrote in a report. Wal-Mart, Johnson speculated, "may be shifting strategies -- at least for its domestic business, which is approaching saturation -- from maximizing sales to maximizing profits."

Yet overall, most analysts took a less-than-cheery approach to this holiday season, and some wondered about the future.

Last night, Brian Tunick, an analyst at J.P. Morgan Chase, issued a report expressing concern that a handful of retailers -- from Chico's to Tiffany to T.J. Maxx -- might soon lower their projections for the fourth quarter.

Despite an acceleration in sales last week and the current strength in luxury goods, Merrill Lynch still projected that holiday retail comparisons for stores open more than a year -- the yardstick retailers prefer -- would increase only 2 percent, down from a 3.3 percent gain in November and December of last year. Elizabeth Pierce, an analyst at Sanders Morris Harris, called her report on holiday shopping, "A Less Than Stellar Finish."

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, retail consultants, also stuck to his group's prediction of 3.4 percent.

The National Retail Federation, whose president called the season "decent" last week, maintained its prediction for 4.5 percent growth.

All the surveys use different time spans and merchant groups, but do not include online sales. And like the calculations of merchants, they do not count gift cards until they are used to purchase merchandise.

Online sales may have been the true hit of Christmas. A survey released this weekend by MasterCard, predicted an optimistic 8.1 percent holiday sales growth for both online and gift card sales.

Some shoppers said they felt left out with so much Internet shopping, according to both Cohen of NPD and a survey conducted by Sears, Roebuck & Co. The problem with the growth of online shopping, Cohen said, is that fewer shoppers buy those impulse items, for themselves, that the stores count on.

Largely because of the shift to more online holiday shopping, he said, only 18 percent of shoppers said they bought something for themselves -- compared with 29 percent last year.

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