By  on July 27, 2005

NEW YORK — The Christmas season beckons retailers — even at the height of summer — with a multitude of challenges in a year that will seriously test them.

Retail consolidations and intensifying pressures on Wal-Mart, Sears, Roebuck and Co. and other low-priced mass chains, as well as Gap Inc., have changed the landscape. By the start of the season, Marshall Field's, Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus and possibly others, such as Carson Pirie Scott, will have new owners with Federated Department Stores Inc. taking over May Department Stores Co. and Saks Inc. selling off department stores.

High oil and gasoline prices, terrorism and concerns about job stability have coalesced, triggering declining consumer confidence last month.

Nonetheless, holiday assortments are planned, press previews are under way and merchandise will start pouring onto the selling floors in mid-October. The bigger push will be in November with pre-holiday sales, though The Neiman Marcus Group launches its over-the-top, ultraexclusive Christmas catalogue in September.

At many stores, last year's explosion of color, cashmere, denim and luxe has been reined in and refined — it's about a fusion of luxe looks with casual; lifestyle items; velvets; metallics; quirky, fun accessories with a lot of shine, gold and bronze, and a return to black dresses.

Retailers selling fashion are not anticipating huge holiday gains — several see low- to midsingle-digit comp-store growth. However, they are hoping for decent business, largely because of progress attaining more sophisticated and differentiated styles, and trends suggesting consumers are more willing to spend on apparel and accessories, having already bought their iPods and computers.

Christine Augustine, retail analyst, Bear, Stearns, said she was "cautiously optimist" about holiday and noted that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has been working to improve apparel and electronics, which could see a lift this year after flopping last holiday, while seasonal bedding, pet supplies, domestics and paper goods did well.

Augustine foresees fewer tactical errors on the marketing side at Wal-Mart, including a return to product-focused advertising, and fewer image campaigns, with hipper ad spots broadcast on the coasts and more traditional ads for the Midwest and the South. Wal-Mart went soft in price promoting after Thanksgiving last year, and suffered as a consequence.

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