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Holiday Season Off to Decent Start

Several stores and malls reported strong traffic helped by dry and mild weather, but the actual buying wasn't commensurate.

Customers in line with toys.

With plenty of hype over earlier hours and price promoting as intense as ever, retailers got off to a decent, but not stellar start to the Christmas season and are keeping cautious on the fourth quarter outlook.

Several stores and malls reported strong traffic helped by dry and mild weather, but the actual buying wasn’t commensurate. Retailers and mall operators said the crowds were very young, often buying for themselves rather than for gifts, and that electronics generally outperformed apparel. Concerns centered over outerwear and cold weather accessories not selling enough, and a lull beginning next week that could last through half or more of December.

However, the consumer mood isn’t bad, excluding those impacted by Hurricane Sandy and there are 34 days from Thanksgiving to Christmas this year compared to 32 in 2011, which should help retailers meet their plans.

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Regarding the early read on holiday business, “So far, it’s similar to last year,” Terry Lundgren, president, chairman and chief executive officer of Macy’s Inc., told WWD at 10 a.m. today, after Macy’s opened at midnight Thanksgiving. “The crowds at Herald Square are larger than prior years but overall business seems similar.” He said the company is no more promotional than last year, but did offer more doorbusters and key items which included such best-sellers on the day as Rampage boots, priced $19.99; Levi’s leather jackets, priced $99; Tommy Hilfiger men’s sweaters in a range of prices; Charter Club cashmere sweaters at $49.99, as well as diamond hoop earrings, moderate priced housewares and electronics.

He said Macy’s had a 5 percent same-store sales gain last year and he expects the department store chain to stay in that range this year, with a 4.2 percent official projection for the fourth quarter. In previous years, retailers could get a pretty good read on the season based upon the Black Friday results, but it’s not necessarily the case any longer, Lundgren said. He expects a slowdown in the first couple of weeks of December, followed by strong business the last ten days before Christmas as well as the week after Christmas. “The business will definitely come late,” Lundgren said. “Consumers seem to feel okay,” he added with the exception of those suffering from the impact of Hurricane Sandy. He said Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, while always a feel-good event, took on new dimension this year since Macy’s made sure to give many parade tickets to victims of Sandy.

Some retailers got a jump on the Black Friday rush by opening Thursday, including the Lord & Taylor flagship on Fifth Avenue which captured many people on their way home from watching the Macy’s parade. At around 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, the store was packed and was distributing free apple cider, though by two hours later, traffic had moderated. Outside, there was a big crowd to look at the holiday windows and lots of people surprised to see the store operating on the holiday.Lord & Taylor kept all of its other stores closed Thanksgiving.

Retail analyst Deborah Weinswig of Citibank, reported early morning Black Friday that Citibank continues to expect holiday sales up 2.5 to 3.5 percent. “Relatively mild weather conditions encouraged strong traffic; however, we believe the warmer temperatures dampened sales of cold weather items like apparel, coats, and boots,” Weinswig wrote in a report. “Instead, consumers focused on value and targeted aggressive electronics promotions, especially through Walmart’s one-hour guarantee on wish list items at 10PM, new this year and a positive for crowd control which improved the in-store experience. Our initial read on Black Friday leaves us concerned about inventory and overall sales, driven by weakness in seasonal. We were also on all of the websites which were sluggish due to strong traffic.”

Simon Properties, the nation’s largest developer, cited very strong traffic for midnight or 12:30 a.m. openings around the country. Simon said that shoppers tended to be younger; 25 and under, and self-purchasing ruled the day. Customers reacted very positively to small surprises, like free coffee and donuts, and entertainment at the entrances, like jazz bands. Among the busiest apparel stores at certain properties were Victoria’s Secret, Finish Line, Buckle, Hollister, Forever 21, and H&M, reflecting younger demographics.

Simon’s King of Prussia mall outside Philadelphia, one of the biggest malls in the country, reported top categories of merchandise for the overnight crowd included apparel, electronics, shoes, and accessories.

The mall said that getting into the mid-morning hours, the shopper demographic shifted and while the under-25 group was still present, they were joined by more 30-to-50-year-old women, as well as young families, and middle-aged couples. Also, with the later morning opening of luxury retailers, the luxury wing crowded up a bit.

Taubman Centers, another leading shopping center developer, said that its Dolphin Mall in Miami and Great Lakes Crossing Outlets in Michigan were open at 9 pm on Thanksgiving night and Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Ill. and Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, Va. opened at midnight.

Dolphin Mall said its hottest categories were electronics, women’s accessories and apparel, children’s and athletic footwear and hot items included Jordan Retro4 athletic wear and Nike Air Max athletic shoes. Taubman mall managers also observed lots of self-purchasing particularly in women’s apparel and athletic footwear, and a predominance of young shoppers.