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NEW YORK — Slow, steady — but when’s the rush?

This story first appeared in the December 17, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

While business has remained fairly constant this holiday season, retailers around the country are still waiting for that last-minute rush to boost Christmas sales in order to meet plan. Although apparel sales have been strong at some high-end retailers, and sluggish at others, certain categories have emerged as standouts across the board: accessories, outerwear, knits and novelty items.

Major retailers reporting comparable-store sales for last week came in with mixed results.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s comps last week trended toward the low end of its projected 3 to 5 percent increase for the month. Shoppers continued to “shop closer to the event” of Christmas, said a spokeswoman on a recorded call. A higher average ticket made up the majority of the same-store sales rise for the week.

Federated Department Stores Inc. said its comps for the combined November-December period were still headed toward the low end of its plan, which calls for a flat to down 2.5 percent result. “Given the sales volume typically done in the days still to come, it is hard to give any further insights into comp-store sales for December,” said the firm on its Web site.

Comps at J.C. Penney Co. Inc.’s department stores trended ahead of their planned low-single-digit December increase through the third week of the firm’s fiscal month. Home, children’s and fine jewelry were the strongest merchandise categories last week. Catalog sales were holding to plan of 20 percent decreases, while its Eckerd drugstores division is holding to its plan of 6 percent comp-store increases.

Also showing strength, ShopKo Stores Inc. said comps through the first two weeks of December were above its plans for a flat finish.

On a recorded call, Target Corp. said its comps through last week were “well below” its plan for a 3 to 5 percent increase. Sporting goods as well as mens’ and ladies’ apparel were singled out as the discounter’s weakest categories for the first two weeks of the month.

Ron Frasch, chairman and chief executive officer of Bergdorf Goodman, reported strong first- and second-week sales. While the retailer beat plan last week, it found business significantly stronger Monday to Friday than over the weekend. “We had a great out-of-town core business over the week,” said Frasch. “I don’t know if they came early out of fear, because of the strike and its impact on travel, or what.”

Designer business has been exceptionally strong at Bergdorf’s. Frasch cited Chanel, Akris, Alexander McQueen and Giorgio Armani, as well as luxury brands such as Agnona and Loro Piana. “Our cosmetics business has been amazing, particularly headlined by the treatment business,” he said. “Also, resort, spring looks and anything feminine are selling really well.”

“We’re a fraction over plan,” said Bloomingdale’s chairman and chief executive officer Michael Gould, “which is good because we were up against a colossal week [last year]. I don’t subscribe to the theory that there was a major surge over the weekend because of the anticipated strike, however.”

According to Gould, strong categories for holiday business include costume jewelry, fur, contemporary sportswear, the cosmetic treatment business, shoes, men’s designer clothes and kids. Also, the retailer’s cashmere business — along with designer brands such as Chanel, St. John and Marni — is “great.”

As reported Monday, New York stores had a mixed weekend. Some retailers maintained stores were busy, but others said customer traffic slowed on Sunday. It was unclear whether the crowds were out for typical holiday season jaunts, or whether they were due in part to customer anxiety about the potential transit strike. At Chico’s, the Fort Meyer’s, Fla.-based specialty store chain with 390 stores, weekend business was better than expected, and up over the same period last year.

According to Jim Fraim, senior vice president of marketing at Chico’s, bestsellers included novelty products, especially in high-end items, such as novelty tops in velvet and leather or suede jackets, all with embellishment and embroidery.

“Price has been no issue, as long as the item is unique,” he said.

Fraim said traffic, especially repeat customers, was up significantly over last year. But, he speculated that walk-in, or mall traffic was flat or slightly down from last year.

Key items profiled in Gap’s marketing campaigns have struck a chord with customers during the season, according to a spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based retailer. At Gap’s 1,487 domestic doors, customers have been picking up anything striped, but mostly sweaters, scarves and hats. At Old Navy’s 850 doors, fleece bottoms and half-zip pullovers are driving sales. And shearling coats, leather coats, peacoats, cashmere sweaters and woven tops are performing well at Banana Republic’s 446 stores.

At Saks Department Store Group, which includes divisions Parisian, Proffitt’s, McRae’s, Younkers, Herberger’s, Carson Pirie Scott, Bergner’s and Boston Store, strong sellers over the weekend were in fashion jewelry, faux-shearling outerwear and embellished, colored leather jackets and coats.

Von Maur, the 18-unit department store chain based in Davenport, Iowa, is beating plan of low-single-digit comp-store gains, said Jim Von Maur, president of the 130-year-old family-owned business. Bestsellers included fashion accessories, knitwear, sterling silver and cosmetics.

At Knoxville, Tenn.-based Goody’s, misses’ apparel was slightly up over the same period last year. Sweaters, outerwear and denim were strong performers, according to chief executive officer Robert Goodfriend.

At Dawahare’s, a moderate-to-better specialty-department store chain with 28 stores in Kentucky and West Virginia, business was flat with the same period last year, although traffic has been strong, with customers looking for special items.

“We’re waiting out this last week, knowing that we have to pick up ground every day, starting today,” said Jimmy Dawahare, general merchandise manager. Newness and novelty has been the key, in all women’s areas.

Outerwear, in novelty looks, such as shearlings with elaborate fur trim, have performed well. Fashion jewelry has been a strong category. Christmas charm bracelets, in private label, just added this year, have sold 10,000 units, at $5 each, while holiday-themed sweaters have performed well, too.

“The weekend was terrific,” said Ron Herman, owner of four namesake stores in Southern California, including the well-known Ron Herman at Fred Segal Melrose in Los Angeles. He noticed customers are picking up close-fitting cashmere sweaters, knit tops, denim jackets with faux-fur trim and shearling coats.

Juicy Couture track suits, the latest styles made from cashmere instead of terry cloth or velour, have also done well. And jewelry was strong with most shoppers gravitating toward “sweet and simple” styles, according to Herman.

Herman said weak spots in the season include skirts, dresses and dress pants — all of which are taking a back seat to cargo pants, both tight and loose.

“There’s going to be a giant push in the last two weeks of the season,” said Herman, noting the latecomers tend to be those wary of the looming war with Iraq and pressing economic issues of the day. All in all, however, Herman said he expects the holidays will wrap up positively. “In the specialty store business, I only have to beat yesterday’s books,” he said.

That’s certainly the case at Kirna Zabete in SoHo, where owners Sarah Hailes and Beth Buccini have seen steady increases each month for the second half of the year. “We’ve been having record months, one right after the other,” said Buccini. “And we’re right on track for December as well. People are spending very steadily.”

Buccini doesn’t see a particularly budget-conscious customer in her store. “We’ve sold 34 Wagner and Ko pavé diamond necklaces at $2,150 each.” Jewelry and other resort accessories have been strong sellers at the designer boutique this season.

Linda LoRe, president and chief executive officer of Frederick’s of Hollywood, said customers have focused on luxury items at the lingerie retailer’s 166 stores. Silk and velvet robes, lace lingerie bras and panties have outpaced basic items such as cotton briefs. “This past weekend was busier, but still not stellar,” said LoRe, noting sales on the West Coast generally are stronger than the East Coast, but overall mall traffic has not been as robust as one would expect. “We had the best day-after-Thanksgiving in the last several years and then it got very spotty,” she said. “We’re all just crossing our fingers and holding our breaths that this last week really delivers a customer.”