By  on December 14, 2004

New York — It’s high-anxiety time for retailers struggling in a tough marketplace as the number of selling days dwindles down toward Christmas.

With holiday sales hardly off the ground, merchandisers hope that next weekend triggers a last-minute bonanza that will help them meet their revenue projections.

Business last weekend “was OK, but nothing earth-shattering,” said Bob Goodfriend, chief executive officer of Goody’s, an Alcoa, Tenn., specialty apparel chain. “It’s extremely competitive and we’re fighting for every dollar. Every time it looks like business is going to blow open, it settles back down.”Mother Nature may give retailers an assist. Lower temperatures are forecast in much of the Northeast and Midwest, which could boost sales of categories that have been lagging: coats, furs and cold-weather accessories. Heavier traffic last weekend, including many foreign tourists reaping the discount benefits of the weakened dollar, suggests that consumers are finally getting gift-minded. And luxury is maintaining its sizzle even as other sectors struggle.

Wal-Mart reported in its weekly sales summary, which included the period through Friday, that general merchandise sales were not as strong as those for food-related items, and sales for winter-related items were also below expectations. The West was the Bentonville, Ark.-based retail giant’s strongest region for the week, with same-store sales estimated to be in the 1 to 3 percent range for the December period. 

Richard Hastings, retail analyst at Bernard Sands, said many consumers are “increasingly carving up their spending budgets in favor of durable, lifestyle-enriching purchases and away from impulse and discretionary spending. For this reason among others, spending at general merchandise stores such as Wal-Mart will continue to be under slight pressure.”

With the Saturday before Christmas usually the biggest or second biggest volume day of the year — last year Black Friday was bigger — retailers this week will accelerate the markdowns and storewide sales beyond what’s already been widely seen this month.

“It’s hard to judge the season at the moment,’’ said a department store chairman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noting there are 29 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas compared with 27 last year. “I think the customer is very versed on the fact that they have two extra days to shop this year, and it has not been consistently cold in the Northeast.

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