By  on September 21, 2011

Apparel and accessories stores are expected to generate a modest sales increase during the upcoming holiday season, but they’ll have to do it with fewer shoppers.

ShopperTrak, the Chicago-based firm that monitors and analyzes foot traffic in about 25,000 stores in North America, projects that apparel and accessories specialty stores will see sales in November and December rise 2.7 percent even as foot traffic declines 1.1 percent during the season.

The forecast is similar to ShopperTrak’s outlook for activity in the broader category of general merchandise, apparel and accessories, furniture and other sales, which are expected to grow a more robust 3 percent despite a larger decline in traffic of 2.2 percent. The projection would place this holiday season’s increase below the 4.1 percent pickup registered during its 2010 counterpart.

ShopperTrak noted that the final months of the year are expected to witness a continuation of the decline in stores visited per shopping trip, which has averaged 3.1 percent this year and is down modestly from the 2010 level of 3.2 percent and the range of 4 to 5 percent registered in the months prior to the onset of the financial crisis of 2008.

The declines in traffic have placed a premium on shopper conversion, noted Christopher Ainsley, president and chief executive officer of ShopperTrak. “The conversion of browsers into buyers is a very powerful lever in the retail word, and becoming more so,” he told WWD. “Moving your conversion rate from 32 percent to 33 percent has a big effect on the bottom line and in the next few years, you’ll see more blocking-and-tackling activity to move those rates up. By the time you get the customer in the door, you’ve already paid all your bills and expenses.”

High-end retailers, which already had an advantage going into holiday based on the more solid condition of their customers’ finances, have gotten “much smarter” in their efforts to boost conversion rates in recent years, Ainsley said, plowing investments into training, customer service and the stores themselves. Many have moved aggressively to establish links between their online and bricks-and-mortar components by placing kiosks in stores.

He conceded that online purchasing, while accounting for about 5 percent of total retail activity in North America, has cut into in-store purchasing to some degree, but believes that the use of the Internet as a research tool might be having a larger impact.

“It’s a continuation of shoppers being much more methodical and efficient in their shopping trips,” he said. “They’re making fewer trips to the store or mall, but once they get there they know what they’re after. There’s a lot of up-front research being conducted online — shoppers getting a sense of the overall range, who might carry a certain product at a certain price and who might not.”

There’s been a bifurcation among shoppers, with those who are employed and have a sense of job security on one side and those lacking either a job or security about employment on the other. One reason retail sales increases have remained reasonably strong, Ainsley noted, is the release of pent-up demand among those in the “confidently employed” group.

“We’re seeing this continued emergence of almost two economies,” he said.

The International Council of Shopping Centers last week said it expected chain store sales to expand 3.5 percent during November and December with apparel and accessories stores up 5 percent and general merchandise stores, including department stores, up 2.5 percent.

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