NEW YORK — There’s a difference of opinion on holiday 2004 retail sales — and the margin among experts is significant.

On Tuesday, the National Retail Federation predicted that, even though business has been softening in the third quarter, retailing will hold up for holiday, with sales gaining 4.5 percent over last year’s period,

However, Retail Forward said the 2004 holiday season will be the best since 1999 for most U.S. retailers, and sees sales growing on average between 6 and 6.5 percent from a year ago. 

Retail Forward, a research outfit, tracks the GAFO sector, which is defined by conventional and discount department stores, apparel stores, furniture, home furnishings, consumer electronics and other specialty stores. Retail Forward said holiday 2004 growth will be a full percentage point higher than last year. Retail Forward plans to provide a fuller forecast on Wednesday.

The NRF was more circumspect about holiday, and said gains will be tough to come by and won’t be as good as last year, when holiday sales rose 5.1 percent.

“Retailers know they will have their work cut out for them this holiday season, but they are up to the challenge,” NRF president and chief executive Tracy Mullin said in a statement Tuesday. “Despite economic and geopolitical concerns, consumers continue to set aside money for what is most important to them.”

The trade organization defines the holiday period as November and December, and says the two-month stretch typically accounts for about one-quarter of annual sales.

In its holiday statistics, the NRF includes retailers in the GAFS category, meaning general merchandisers; clothing and accessories stores; furniture and home furnishings stores, and stores selling electronics, appliances, sporting goods, hobbies, books and music. This group is seen generating $219.9 billion in total volume for the holiday period, the NRF said. Based on NRF statistics, the group generated about $210.5 billion last year.

“Although consumer spending has been inconsistent in recent months, we expect the holiday season to bring more stability to the industry,” NRF chief economist Rosalind Wells said in a statement. “Home-related merchandise and consumer electronics should do well this holiday season and trendy fashions should help spark clothing sales.”

This story first appeared in the September 22, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Wells said comparisons are tougher this year compared with last year and that holiday sales this year will further be impacted by higher energy costs, rising interest rates, geopolitical threats and slow income growth.

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