By and  on December 6, 2005

NEW YORK — The holiday shopping rush let up this past week, but not enough to cause retailers to panic.

A lull usually occurs after the big Black Friday weekend, so retailers are maintaining their expectations for a decent Christmas season — at least for now.

In most cases, that will mean midsingle-digit comp gains, probably close to 5 percent, according to several retailers and industry analysts. Some said Monday that holiday 2005 is another "back-loaded" season, meaning whether retailers achieve goals will come down to the wire. There's an extra day of shopping this year between Thanksgiving and Christmas; consumers continue to last-minute shop, expecting markdowns to deepen as days pass; Hanukkah this year starts late, on Christmas Day, and gift cards continue to grow in popularity and largely get redeemed right after Christmas and into January.

This week, there should be a buildup of 30 to 50 percent off promotions, two-for-one and "friends and family" deals, and a shift to greater gift shopping as opposed to the unusually high level of self-purchasing that retailers have noticed in the past couple of weeks. There could be a challenging few days ahead, considering retailers are up against snowfalls and Hanukkah, which occurred this week a year ago. Snow on Sunday stole some business from retailers, mostly in Northeast and New England states, but traffic was still strong in Manhattan.

"It's an uneven season, with lots of stops and starts," said Isaac Lagnado, president of Tactical.org., a consulting firm. "It won't be a terrible season, but I think retailers will come out with 4 percent comps. The customer is more fickle than last year and there is a slight climate of uncertainty," Lagnado said, citing gas prices and plant closings.

Last month, the National Retail Federation raised its projection for retail sales gains for holiday to 6 percent, to $439.5 billion. Wal-Mart expects December comparable-store sales to be up 2 to 4 percent in December, and last week food sales were stronger than general merchandise. Federated is projecting comps up around 1 to 2 percent for the fourth quarter.

"It's going to be an OK Christmas," said Michael Appel, managing director of Quest Turnaround Advisors. "The week after Thanksgiving is usually a smaller [volume] week because people take a breather." He added that retailers examine closely how daily sales fare against the day's plan and, based on a week's results, decide whether to promote more or stay the course. While one top retailer said this week's promotions already are planned in advance, it's not too late for some tweaking.

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