NEW YORK — With time running out, stores are betting that last-minute shoppers can add some badly needed sparkle to what has mostly been a modest Christmas season.

Many retailers envision a final-week rush that, they hope, will push their sales above the projected 6 to 8 percent increase for the season. Despite some big figures at the close of last week, gains since the big Thanksgiving weekend for many retailers have been OK at best.

“The same thing seems to be happening that has happened in the last few years, which is that Christmas is coming later and later,” said Michael Gould, chairman and chief executive officer of Bloomingdale’s.

“The best way to describe the business is that it’s not as good as we thought it was going to be a month or so ago,” Gould added. “August, October and November were spectacular months. We thought we might be able to get double-digit increases in December. It’s not going to be a bad month, but it’s not going to be what we thought it was.”

J.C. Penney Co. posted a 2 percent sales gain for the week, said Tom Hutchens, executive vice president and director of merchandising.

“We had an exceptionally strong weekend, though,” he said. “Business is really starting to break.”

He said sales were up at least 10 percent Saturday, and improved less than 5 percent Sunday. Penney’s units in the Southeast and Midwest were exceptionally busy, he said.

“The consumer is really reacting to winter-weight merchandise,” Hutchens said. Bestsellers included outerwear, sweaters and heavier shirts.

Other hot categories at Penney’s were innerwear, small leather goods, gloves and handbags.

At Sears, Roebuck & Co., sales last week “were good across the house,” according to John H. Costello, senior vice president for marketing.

Costello said Sears is on plan to exceed last year’s record 13 percent holiday sales increase. With such an increase, the moderate-price chain likely would rank among the top holiday performers.

Jewelry, cosmetics, men’s casual wear and jeans all “registered good sales increases,” he said.

Sears’ best-selling soft lines included diamond bracelets and jeans, Costello said. Computers, Kenmore air cleaners and direct satellite television receivers were the top-selling hard goods.

At Kmart Corp., comparable-store sales are “slightly positive” for the season to date but have been relatively flat since the strong weekend immediately following Thanksgiving, a spokesman said.

The discounter expects to see a sales increase this week, however, because of easier comparisons with the year-ago period (a storm hit the Northeast the week before Christmas last year) and the extra shopping day on Saturday, the spokesman said.

Kmart, with 2,350 stores, said its sales have not varied much from one area of the country to another.

Philip Miller, chairman and ceo of Saks Fifth Avenue, said sales picked up momentum last weekend, rising about 13 percent, and he is hoping for a 6 to 8 percent gain for the month.

“This last week will absolutely be the biggest week of the season because of the extra day we pick up on Saturday,” Miller said. “We are looking to be up between 6 and 8 percent in the month of December. That’s on top of a terribly strong November, where we were up 18 percent.”

Miller said he believes it’s going to be “the best Christmas season we’ve had in many years.”

Joe Levy, chairman and chief executive officer of Gottschalks, Fresno, Calif., said the department store’s same-store sales are even with last year for the season to date. Total sales are up 4 percent.

“A barnburner? I’m not so sure,” Levy said.

Still, he said, Gottschalks is hopeful that total sales will improve 10 percent and same-store sales will rise 5 percent.

“There’s nothing wrong with a 10 percent increase, and margins are good this year,” he added.

In California, Levy said promotional restraint by competitors — Macy’s, Weinstock’s, Mervyn’s, and J.C. Penney — has enabled Gottschalks to stick with its promotion schedule and offer fewer price breaks.

Coats, Pendleton shirts and fleece are Gottschalks’ leading sellers. In juniors, recycled and reconstructed men’s wear jackets in small sizes have been selling at a pace of 2,000 units per week at $19.99 each, Levy said.

At Jacobson’s, James Batterson, vice president, said sales continue to exceed last year’s results, but the increase is less than 5 percent. “This week certainly is the most important single week of the year,” he said. “If there’s as much excitement as we want to believe there will be, things could turn out very nicely.”

After a slow start, sales have begun picking up in the Midwest as more seasonal weather patterns set in, Batterson said. He said Jacobson’s is not planning any special promotions for the final week, except its typical advertising.

R.H. Macy & Co. said it expects “modest sales increases” this year but declined to provide specific estimates.

“We are encouraged by the strong turnout at our stores on both the East and West coasts,” a spokeswoman said. Business last week at Neiman Marcus stayed on plan with a sales increase, according to Janet Gurwitch, executive vice president of women’s merchandising.

Cosmetics posted at least a 10 percent jump, and cashmere has gained momentum every week, she noted. Designer cruise collections and spring shoes also are doing well.

At Bloomingdale’s, Gould said gift items and food are the leading sellers. The food business should end up with a 35 percent-plus gain, he said.

Gould characterized the women’s bridge business as “good,” and said better separates and sportswear will show double-digit sales increases.

“This is a great fragrance month,” said Gould, citing CK One and DK for Men as standouts. “The fragrance business should greatly benefit from the extra day.”

“Our women’s coat business is very good,” Gould said. “We’re seeing mid-double digits on a comp-store basis this month, without promoting. We feel coats are well positioned going forward.”

According to Gould, business at the 59th Street flagship has been very strong. The Washington and Philadelphia stores are leading the branches in sales.

While other stores were trying to figure out how to move more sweaters gloves and coats, Charles Bunstine, chief operating officer of Barneys New York, said the store was working on the spring collections, which had already found their own following.

“Our momentum is really about building up to spring,” Bunstine said. “What’s happened is we’re having a tremendous performance from new deliveries. We’re looking at a non-promotional, highly receipt-driven holiday. We’ve been planning this for a long time. What we’ve yet to realize is the magnitude of how much we can really affect the business by avoiding promotion and driving the whole business with product.

“Our jewelry business is very good,” Bunstine said. “The outerwear business has really kicked in over the last few weeks, but it’s not about traditional coats. Right now leather and suedes are really hot. We haven’t been able to keep suedes in stock. The cold weather happened late, and outerwear is now performing well. But while those businesses perform very well, they are certainly overshadowed by the transition we made in seasons.”

Bunstine said Jil Sander’s spring collection left Europe on Thursday and was selling in the store on Saturday.

At Saks, Miller said this month has seen a nice turnaround in the ourterwear businesses.

Private label sportswear is strong, particularly cashmere. Handbags and footwear are also enjoying a very strong season, he said. Fragrance has been “terrific,” Miller said, citing exclusive launches such as Jean Paul Gaultier. Novelty sweaters have been “unbelievable,” he said.

“The one area of our apparel business that is still in need of improvement is daytime dresses, although evening dresses have improved,” he said.

As far as branches, the chain’s new store in Short Hills, N.J., has been exceeding plan by 25 percent, Miller said.

Stanton Bluestone, president and ceo of Carson, Pirie, Scott, Milwaukee, said he does not believe Christmas has the same enthusiasm as it did a year ago.

“With all the promoting going on the customer is waiting to get the best deal,” he said. “This season has had the heaviest promotional activity I’ve ever seen during a Christmas season.”

Bluestone said stores may have been quicker to promote this year due to the warm weather in the Midwest.

“It got people concerned, and they began to do a little more promoting than was perhaps necessary,” he said. “We basically ran the events that we planned originally.

According to Bluestone, sweaters in cashmere and other luxury fibers are selling briskly. Other strong categories are misses’ and petite sportswear, better separates and sportswear, Christmas motif sweaters and jogging suits. The fleece category continues to be strong.

“Our women’s apparel business is our best business,” Bluestone said. “It’s running ahead of the entire company.”

In the Southeast, retailers reported sales gains of between 5 percent and 7 percent, and they prepared for the last-minute rush.

“We’ll be very aggressive this week on price,” said Jodie Ruck, vice president and general merchandise manager of women’s wear at McRae’s department stores. “And we have advertising running every day. It will be a good Christmas.”

Ruck said sales at McRae’s, based in Jackson, Miss., increased about 7 percent last week, which was ahead of plan. Ruck said she is looking for a “strong ending” to the season.

Among the top-selling items at McRae’s this last week were coats, including wool, active and opening price-point leathers. Sales of most other cold weather apparel also picked up, Ruck said, but sweater sales have been sporadic.

Other hot items include denim jeans, denim dresses, cosmetics and social dresses, Ruck said. Christmas-motif novelties, handknits, novelty textures and embellished country classics also are selling well, but basics and cardigans have been disappointing.

Inventories of some categories, such as social dresses and woven shirts, have thinned out, Ruck said.

Susan Weiss, an owner of Snooty Hooty, Atlanta, said sales last week rose 5 percent, matching the increase for the season to date.

“I have a bigger projection this week because, although we’re up, we haven’t seen any panic yet,” she said. “I know that a lot [of customers] shopped early, but the majority are shopping late. I expect to see that panic this week.”

Best-selling items at Snooty Hooty include suits (cocktail and business), jewelry and body-conscious clothes such as tapered jackets with nipped-in waists, dresses and body suits. The store also has had a big season with painted glassware and personalized painted pillows.

Inventories are “very thinned out,” Weiss said, especially jewelry.

At A Nose for Clothes, based in Miami, sales for the season are up about 5 percent, according to Freda Greenbaum, an owner and buyer. The units in north Miami and Atlanta have performed especially well, with sales up more than 10 percent, she said.

Bestsellers at the retailer’s seven units include casual-at-home party clothes and evening dresses with an accent on detailed beading; resort clothing in pastel colors, and sweaters in cotton knit or chenille fabrics.

Greenbaum said she will not begin marking down holiday merchandise until after Christmas.

Peter Marx, vice president of Saks Jandel in Washington, said the unseasonably warm weather is hampering sales, which are expected to remain flat compared with last year.

Nevertheless, Prada’s black and brown nylon fashion handbags, priced at $500 to $700, are a popular gift item, and Chanel leather handbags, priced at $1,725, have sold out, Marx said.

Shearling coats “continue to be a craze,” he added.

In Los Angeles, sales rebounded for the week at Theodore, a six-unit upscale apparel chain. Volume jumped 10 percent for the week, a dramatic shift from the 8 percent drop a week earlier.

“It’s hard to say if anybody’s in the mood,” said Herb Fink, owner. “The traffic is very slow, but those who come in, buy.”

Cashmere, casual clothing, skiwear and ski-inspired clothing are hot at Theodore. Suits and more tailored sportswear are cold. The Wave and Blue System, two ski lines from St. Moritz carried exclusively by Theodore in many areas, were best-selling lines.

Fink said the holiday sales promotion frenzy of the last few years has slowed. “There’s no hysteria this year,” Fink said. “People have gotten their inventories in line with the realities of today.”


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