By  on November 23, 2005

NEW YORK — The Grinch may not have stolen Christmas after all.

Retailers have renewed reason to be optimistic about the holidays as a spate of factors, including lower gasoline prices, more seasonal, cooler temperatures and improved consumer confidence have serendipitously converged to bring cheer back to the mall just two days before Black Friday, the traditional start of the selling season.

But watch out: Consumers still want bargains.

Citing a decrease in prices at the gas pump and retail sales that jumped 7.2 percent in both September and October, the National Retail Federation upped its November-December retail sales forecast Tuesday to an increase of 6 percent from a late September estimate for a 5 percent rise.

The NRF said it was the first time it officially upgraded a holiday sales forecast during the season. Last year, holiday sales rose 6.7 percent.

"As gasoline prices decrease, consumers are finding a little extra padding in their budgets," said Rosalind Wells, chief economist at the NRF, in a written statement.

The NRF and BIG Research estimate that 130 million consumers are expected to shop from Black Friday, Nov. 25, through Sunday.

Despite the improved sales expectations, according to a recent survey of 5,000 U.S. households conducted by research firm TNS for The Conference Board, the average household expenditure on gifts will be $466 this year. That's down modestly from last year's $476 estimate.

"This cautious attitude will have consumers shopping for bargains this season," predicted Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center.

Discounts certainly appear to be on most retailers' radar screens, and Black Friday early-bird "door busters" should be in full force. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said in a late Monday statement that "special values" will be available from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. Friday and that it will match prices on identical product from local competitors' print ads. In-store Black Friday specials include 15-inch LCD TVs for $200 and the Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP for $50. Online specials, which began Monday and end Friday, include women's silk pajamas for $30 and women's cashmere sweaters for $35.

In the meantime, weather has played a bigger role on apparel retail sales in the back half of this year than in years past. Hot weather negatively impacted the traditional back-to-school season in August and September, for example, and late summer hurricanes hurt overall consumer confidence.But while the first two weeks of November had warmer-than-usual weather, colder temperatures returned in the third week, which helped increase sales, according to equity analyst Richard Jaffe of Legg Mason. The analyst wrote in a Tuesday research note that sales should "accelerate into December, as consumers continue to shop later and closer to need."

Meanwhile, an expected increase in home heating bills still stands to impact overall spending during the holiday and beyond. According to a recent SG Cowen & Co. online survey of 848 consumers, 38 percent said energy prices have affected their planned holiday spending.

As for holiday merchandise trends, Jane Hali, vice president and director of retail and merchandising consulting at Coleman Research Group, said on a recent conference call hosted by Citigroup equity analyst Deborah Weinswig that "romantic looks" are this season's top styles. That includes Russian and Victorian influences, such as "luxurious fabrics, ornate prints and voluminous shapes" and "high, frilly necklines and long-sleeve styles in sumptuous fabrics." Other top trends include lace, velvet, fur, the tuxedo, sweaters, accessories, metallics and colors, Hali said.

At Sears, a spokeswoman said Tuesday that cashmere, fine jewelry and women's short and long jackets, are expected to be strong sellers during holiday.

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