By and and and  on December 7, 2010

Overwhelmed by all those big Black Friday deals? Not quite. Consumers crowded the malls again last week but exhibited less readiness to spend compared with Thanksgiving weekend.

The mind-set shifted — browsing became more evident amid widespread promoting that persisted aggressively, although down a notch from Black Friday’s cacophony.

Still, retailers and analysts contacted Monday said volumes last week were higher than a year ago, and sufficient enough to sustain their upbeat outlook for mid-single digit holiday gains.

While last week did see a decline from the end-of-November rush, it was expected, and typical for early December, retailers stressed. They also said they expect shopping to heat up again beginning online around Dec. 15 and on selling floors the week before Christmas.

“We are pleased with what we saw happen last week,” said Keith Fulsher, executive vice president and chief merchandise officer of Dress Barn. “The categories that were pretty good and that we think will remain strong are special occasion, sweaters, especially longer-length tunics, jeggings, the denim business and cold weather, especially items with fur trims. We are hopeful. We think it will play out to be a good season, but there is still a lot of time ahead of us. So far, we are OK.”

There’s a significant difference in the tempo at retail from Thanksgiving week to the week after. “You don’t get the same volume dollars,” observed Liz Rodbell, executive vice president of Lord & Taylor. “But the rate of increase [last week] was very strong. Business was exceptional throughout the whole week. The cold weather helped a lot,” spurring boots, coats and accessories. Handbags and watches were also standouts. “Hanukkah could have contributed,” Rodbell added.

“The tone is very good,” said one department store chairman who requested anonymity. “There is no reason to believe any different. You would see a lull versus Black Friday, but you have to make the comparison to a year ago. We are in a reasonably good holiday season. There is no reason to believe it’s changing. I don’t hear people crying.”

“Based on our channel checks at several malls and outlets in Southern California over the weekend, we noted that traffic remained heavy although conversion was not as strong as the Black Friday weekend,” according to a report issued by Roth Capital Partners. “Overall, promotions were not as deep nor were there as many early-bird specials compared to the Black Friday weekend which was in line with our expectations given that there are still two full weekends left to shop. In our opinion, given that shoppers continue to shop closer to need, retailers are rightly holding back their ‘firepower’ until the last weekend.”

The Roth report said the Buckle and Urban Outfitters “stayed consistent with very few promotions while Hot Topic, Wet Seal, Pac Sun and Zumiez offered buy-one, get-one-free deals on certain items and Bebe, Chico’s and Coldwater Creek offered percentage-off specials and/or bounce backs.…We continue to believe that Urban Outfitters, Wet Seal and Zumiez are positioned for a strong holiday season,” and along with Chico’s “are positioned to weather any potential slowdown in consumer spending post holiday season while still being able to internally fund store growth.”

Consistent with the brick-and-mortar performance, growth rates online subsided in the second half of last week, according to comScore, which tracks the digital world. Cyber Monday generated over $1 billion in online sales, while the holiday season-to-date has generated $16.8 billion online, marking a 12 percent increase from last year, comScore said.

On the promotional front, “We have an aggressive marketing strategy planned,” said a Toys ‘R’ Us spokeswoman. “Last week, we released our biggest Christmas sale ever — a 64-page catalogue filled with up to $4,500 in savings. We will continue to offer one- and two-day sales throughout the season. We’re very pleased with the customer response to our Black Friday promotions and offerings, and we expect that momentum to continue throughout the season. Members of our loyalty program, Rewards ‘R’ Us, this year can get 10 percent back on purchases made in stores and online.”

Target and Wal-Mart are going head-to-head on free shipping offers. Target calls its promotion “The Biggest Bullseye Free Shipping” event ever and will ship 900,000 items at no cost, with a $50 purchase. Walmart.com through Dec. 20 will ship free almost 60,000 holiday items, with no minimum purchase or subscription fee. Electronics, home appliances and furniture are included along with jewelry, baby items and video games.

Steve Eastman, president, Target.com, said the retailer quadrupled the number of items eligible for free shipping and offers an additional 5 percent off all online purchases when shoppers use the REDcard. Target.com’s daily deals offer one-day savings of up to 50 percent off regular prices. New promotions this holiday season include Mega Merry Mondays, featuring low prices on 17 hot items, and Total Toy Tuesdays with deep discounts on five top toys.

The weather and “engineered promotions” are working for retailers, said Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies, Kurt Salmon Associates. “The cold-weather business is really enjoying a good rebound,” he said, adding that retailers have put out “highly promotional merchandise, particularly giftables and cold-weather items, planned with “built-in sufficient margins and substantial value to customers….Retailers are not involved in major clearance. They are involved in targeted, engineered promotions.”

Stanley Korshak, a luxury store in Dallas, had a “phenomenal” week with about a 50 percent increase in sales, said Crawford Brock, owner. “If you look at the trend of the last 90 days I’d expect a 15 percent gain this month,” Brock said. “Jewelry is doing great and it was terrible a year ago.”

J.C. Penney declined to divulge figures, but a spokeswoman said the holiday season is off to a strong start in stores and on jcp.com. Bestsellers include women’s private label St. John’s Bay cashmere-blend peacoats, fashion boots, children’s character sleepwear such as Spider-Man, Sharper Image’s digital video camera and remote control items like an Execuheli helicopter.

Ashton Kelly, a store manager at Pink Zone, purveyor of affordable women’s apparel, described Black Friday as “absolutely insane” at the mall, but comparably mild at the street locations. “Since Black Friday, things went back to normal,” she said. The dip, she added, is “very typical for us this time of year.” For the season generally, Kelly said, “I do feel we are picking up a lot from 2009.”

Carl Dias, women’s buyer for the Los Angeles designer store Traffic, said Black Friday sales this year were double last year’s and that Black Friday weekend was “back to what it had been a few years before.” After Black Friday, he continued, there was a lull reminiscent of post-Black Friday periods in past years. “We definitely have every expectation of being up from last year,” said Dias. “Things are steadier. I have been doing this a long time and the last couple of seasons have been nuts, especially in women’s. There was always some kind of rhythm or pattern and you had a couple of years with no rhythm and no pattern. A rhythm has returned.”

Following Black Friday, Toni Forseth, co-owner of three Louie Permelia specialty stores in the Seattle area, said business was “just OK…It doesn’t feel like customers are out there really buying for Christmas yet,” she said. Contrasting sales this holiday season so far to last year, she said, “Nothing [is] up by any means. A lot of our last-minute shoppers are men shopping for their wives. That is always our last week. Men don’t shop early. I’m guessing people are discount shopping right now, and then I am hoping they will come in and shop after.”

Chad Erikson, president of Just Sports, a 27-unit sports apparel retailer, said Black Friday was “a little bit above last year” and projected the holiday season to be equal to 2009. “We had some pretty big sales last year. We ran buy-one-get-one-half-off most of the month. We are hoping not to be as aggressive this year, but still keep sales flat,” he said. “If I can do that, I will be as happy as I can be.”

Fred Levine, owner of around 20 M. Fredric stores, said, “I am seeing a turnaround. There is no question. I am seeing a spark of life in the consumer through all the month of November, but especially since Black Friday. It’s been a couple of years of tough times and this is the first time I am seeing positive energy. People are out shopping and buying for themselves as well as for others.”

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