By  on December 19, 2006

Retailers are playing a waiting game just six days before Christmas, looking for serious last-minute customer traffic to make the season a success.

December has been tepid because of several factors: Procrastination has become the order of the day for many bargain-hunting shoppers; warm weather in the East has dampened demand for outerwear, cold-weather accessories and sweaters; the lagging housing industry chilling consumer spending, and the absence of must-have or hot items.

The doldrums could also reflect the surprising restraint that some retailers have shown in advertising markdowns and consumers anticipating more later. Price promoting has been relatively subdued since after Thanksgiving weekend and generally no more severe than last year, although analysts said markdowns are visible once in the stores and that Kohl's and J.C. Penney have been among the most aggressive promoters.

"There is not a significant difference in the trends that were established in the beginning of the month," Ron Klein, chairman and chief executive officer of Macy's East, said Monday. "Clearly, warmer temperatures in the geographic areas where Macy's East trades are having difficulty with cold-weather giftables, but there is plenty of time between now and Christmas. I think it's going to be a mad rush at the end."

Klein cited handbags, watches and cashmere as among the stronger categories, and outerwear and cold-weather accessories are weak. Other retailers also have cited dresses, luxury goods, fragrance and jewelry as pacing the business.

"We anticipate a big week this week and this coming weekend," said a spokesman for Sears Holdings. "We have our circulars going out announcing our specials for the weekend and extended store hours."

The company said it's lowering prices on last-minute gifts in electronics, tools, games, apparel and jewelry.

"Business is off compared to last year, in spite of the fact that shoppers rave about my collection," said Mary Jaeger, of the shop bearing her name at 51 Spring Street in New York's SoHo. Jaeger sells limited-edition women's accessories and items such as wraps, capes, shibori T-shirts and jackets.

"I'd love to use [unseasonably warm] weather as an excuse — most retailers would. I'm sure it has something to do with it…but I just think people are waiting until the last minute," said Herman Heinle, president at Gus Mayer, a better specialty retailer in Birmingham, Ala., and Nashville, where sales are off from last year by a few points.

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