By  on December 21, 2004

NEW YORK — Though holiday traffic and sales have been shy of expectations, retailers aren’t issuing autopsy reports on the season. Not just yet.

They say a blast of cold air this week should lift outerwear sales; that consumers are delaying purchasing to capture ever-growing markdowns on the last couple of days before Christmas; that online and gift card sales keep accelerating, and the post-Christmas week could be big.

Department stores and discounters have gotten the cold shoulder from consumers, while luxury stores, some specialty chains, and Web sites — offering deliveries often as late as Dec. 22 to arrive in time for Christmas — are holding up.

On Monday, many executives lamented the season, saying it’s been dragged down by a lack of hot items, warm weather for most of December, high fuel costs and credit concerns.

“It’s awful,” said one department store official, describing the season. “All we can do is wait. You just can’t get any cheaper on the goods. There’s nowhere to go but up.”

“The lower-income customer is really waiting,” said one retail chief executive, while a sales clerk at the Dollar General store on Marsh Lane in northwest Dallas said, “The idea is to save money, no matter where you have to go.”

Sounding a hopeful, yet cautious note, Tracy Mullin, president and ceo of the National Retail Federation, said, “We believe that consumers still have about 20 percent of their shopping left to do. It’s a solid, but not spectacular, season. We think [the industry is] on track to do about 4.5 percent over last year for the November-December holiday period,” she said, referring to NRF’s earlier prediction on total sales increases. The holiday verdict rests on how soon consumers redeem gift cards, which, for the third year in a row, are hot. Most retailers record them as sales after the cards get redeemed.

“Don’t just look at comp-store sales. That’s just one part of the picture,” Mullin said. “We look at GAFS sales, the Internet, new stores and gift cards.” She said post-Christmas will be a “no holds barred” situation. “Retailers have done a good job keeping inventories lean. But they still have white elephants.”

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