By  on December 22, 2011

The sustained post-Thanksgiving lull hasn’t dampened the early enthusiasm of researchers tracking holiday results.

In fact, expectations of a mad — and principally offline — pre- and post-Christmas rush to stores has led the National Retail Federation and ShopperTrak to lift their sales expectations for the combined November-December selling period to increases of 3.8 percent and 3.7 percent, from 2.8 percent and 3 percent, respectively. Another group, Customer Growth Partners LLC, is sticking with its more bullish prediction of a 6.5 percent increase in overall holiday sales, with apparel and accessories leading all categories of merchandise with a 7.6 percent pickup.

Some of this optimism is predicated on the expectation that shoppers will do in the final days before the holiday exactly what they did in the immediate aftermath of Thanksgiving — head to the stores with a voracious appetite for bargains whetted by the certain knowledge of dramatic discounts. While shopping activity has been disappointing for many stores in December, with a lack of wintry weather complicating a tepid selling environment, procrastinators are running out of time to get gifts just as retailers are pulling out the stops on discounts designed to attract even the most mall-averse shoppers.

Adding to the possibility of a last-minute stampede is the tendency in the final days before Christmas to forgo online buying, although not online research, because of questions about delivery. As reported, The NPD Group earlier this week reported a decline in the online share of buying visits, to 16.4 percent last week from 17.4 percent in the prior week, and a corresponding increase in brick-and-mortar store conversion rates, to 68.1 percent last week from 67.3 percent. Earlier this week, Gian Fulgoni, chairman of digital tracking firm ComScore, acknowledged that “the preponderance of Americans’ late-season holiday shopping will shift to brick-and-mortar retail.”

However, the strong performance of e-commerce throughout the season is among the factors contributing to general optimism about holiday results. For the first 48 days of the holiday season, through Dec. 18, online sales grew 15 percent to $31.97 billion, including a 14.3 percent rise in the most recent week, to $6.29 billion, ComScore said. While that revenue isn’t collected in stores, much of it winds up on the top lines of U.S. retailers, many of which have been reporting double-digit increases in their online businesses throughout the year.

Another source of expected sales vigor is so-called Black Monday, Dec. 26. With the day after Christmas falling on a Monday for the first time since 2005, and the last time until 2016, ShopperTrak expects about a 60 percent boost in traffic over last year, when the date fell on a Sunday and it was the year’s fifth biggest shopping day. Customer Growth Partners projected that sales could reach $29 billion, about $2 billion above Black Friday’s ample mark.

ShopperTrak’s elevation of the anticipated holiday increase, to 3.7 percent, came despite continued expectations of a 2.2 percent decline in foot traffic for the season.

“Shoppers took an expected break after Black Friday,” said Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak, “but spending will likely rise as the calendar rolls into Christmas. With shoppers making fewer trips than last year but spending more, each one is more valuable.”

The Chicago-based monitor of retail traffic put month-to-date sales 0.5 percent over those of December 2010, with Super Saturday sales down 0.7 percent to $7.5 billion. However, the firm noted that November sales were stronger than expected and late December business should be elevated by both colder temperatures and the heavy concentration of holiday buying just prior to Christmas.

Also citing strength in November, as well as a decline in the amount of holiday shopping that consumers had completed early in the season, NRF last week adjusted its estimate for holiday sales to an increase of 3.8 percent, up 1 point from its initial estimate, and noted that, while above the 10-year average of a 2.6 percent increase, it fell below last year’s actual increase of 5.2 percent.

Craig Johnson, president of CGP, noted that weather-related softness in outerwear had been offset by strength in categories including sweaters, women’s contemporary and, enjoying “its best season in years,” men’s wear.

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