By and  on December 26, 2000

NEW YORK -- In a wild finale to their holiday season, retailers were saved last week by hordes of late shoppers, the cold weather raising demand for coats, cashmere and accessories, intensified markdowns, and extended store hours.

They managed to pull out slight gains, though they were at least a couple of points behind last year's millennium-charged increases. For Christmas 1999, the nation's merchants posted an average 6.7 percent gain. For Christmas 2000, chains are seen posting maybe half that, when they report December sales early next month.

According to sources, discounters, notably Kohl's and TJX Cos., along with some specialty chains, such as American Eagle and Talbots, fared best. Shoppers were out in these stores well into Sunday afternoon. Department stores such as Federated Department Stores and Dillard's performed close to very modest goals, slipping into the plus columns with gains of around one or two percent due to surges in the second half of the month. J.C. Penney is said to be meeting even more modest plans, in the negative figures, while Kmart and Wal-Mart resorted to desperate measures, including keeping stores open round the clock, to catch missed business.

Luxury stores reportedly got whacked. They planned big after running strong earlier in the year, and fell short. Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue were said to have faced uneven levels of business depending on the weather and the region, with the Midwest, Atlanta and Texas markets said to be on the weaker side. Clearing excess inventory could come at an enormous cost to stores and vendors.

Generally, however, retailers catering to more moderate income levels were lifted by the two extra shopping days falling on a weekend, as well as the frigid weather spurring cold weather categories, and jewelry coming to life later in the game. Also, clearer skies Friday and Saturday made transportation to shopping centers easy. "The last two days were really crazy," said Walter Loeb, retail consultant.

"At many places, the register lines were six or seven people long," Loeb observed. "Kohl's started its post-Christmas sale the day before Christmas and was very, very busy. [At many retailers] a lot of people bought gift certificates at the last minute. This week will also be very busy. There are no hard numbers available, but the last two days brought retailing up to acceptable levels. Probably, the overall increase for the season will be around 4.5 percent to 5 percent. There was such late shopping. It was like people were shopping out of a sense of guilt," that their Christmas trees wouldn't be adorned by enough gifts.

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