By  on September 17, 2013

The calendar, a source of comfort and joy for retailers during the holiday season of 2012, might generate more anxiety than confidence this year.

In its preliminary forecast for the season, Chicago-based retail traffic counter ShopperTrak projected that sales during November and December would increase 2.4 percent over 2012 levels, lower than the 3 percent increase registered during holiday 2012.

Apparel and accessories sales are expected to come in slightly stronger for the season, rising 2.8 percent.

However, shoppers, armed with a growing arsenal of tablets and smartphones and more apps for them, are expected to be more focused in their hunt for gifts and less apt to engage in leisurely browsing of malls and stores. ShopperTrak expects traffic to dip 1.4 percent from 2012 levels, which rose 2.5 percent from the prior year. For apparel and accessories, the traffic decrease is expected to come in at 1 percent.

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Much of the pressure on retailers will come from an unforgiving calendar. Last year, the window between Black Friday and Christmas Day was a full 32 days, the maximum possible, and this year will swing in the opposite direction, shrinking to 25. The seven-day difference will also mean one less weekend during that stretch.

The Jewish calendar complicates matters further. Hanukkah this year begins on Nov. 28, the day of Thanksgiving, and just one day before Black Friday. That’s the earliest Hanukkah has started since 1994, when it also fell on Nov. 28, and the last time it will commence at such an early date until 2032, when the menorah will again first be lit on Nov. 28, truncating the market for Jewish holiday gifts as well.

ShopperTrak expects holiday promotions — even the preplanned kind — to start as early as the day after Halloween, which this year falls on a Thursday.

“Nobody can afford to procrastinate,” said Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak. “Retailers must have their holiday marketing and operations ready to go when November begins, as consumers will be ready to take advantage of those deals.”

Martin continues to see signs of thrift among U.S. shoppers, with retailers equipped for the selling opportunities in stores and through traditional and Web-based media best positioned for success.

“Although the economy continues to recover slowly, consumers remain cautious about spending and are not ready to splurge,” Martin noted. “Even though online buying increases each year, brick-and-mortar sales remain retail’s largest profit opportunity. Retailers who deliver a seamless experience both in-store and at every customer touch point have the chance to capitalize and grab their share of wallet when shoppers visit the stores.”

ShopperTrak’s projections and results refer to GAFO sales, meaning those related to general merchandise, apparel, furniture and related classifications.

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