View Slideshow

NEW YORK — Although the broader markets slid on Friday as Wall Street fretted over the impact of higher fuel costs, the WWD Stock Index closed the week unscathed.

The WWD index finished last week up 0.7 percent to 1,083.63 from 1,076.07 the prior week while the S&P 500 dropped 1.1 percent to 1,095.74 from 1,108.12.

Investors in fashion and retail seem to be in a holding pattern. The big bet is how this year’s holiday shopping season will fare. In several firms’ forecasts, estimates ranged from gains of 3 to 6 percent.

The more bearish views on holiday sales were from analysts who see more challenges than opportunities, which was the mantra during two conferences last Thursday.

Analysts and economics speaking at the “Christmas ’04: The Retail Forecast” conference at the Fashion Institute of Technology here expected slow job growth, uncertainty in the presidential election, rising gas and fuel oil prices and a lousy long-term weather forecast to hurt sales and offset positive trends, which include a strong fashion cycle and two extra shopping days this year between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Marshal Cohen, analyst at The NPD Group, said during the conference that he predicts a 3.8 percent sales gain this year, “which is about a carbon copy of what we had last year,” he said.

Mark Friedman, equity analyst at Merrill Lynch, said he sees same-store sales rising 4 percent for the companies on his radar, which include specialty retailers such as American Eagle Outfitters, Gap Inc., TJX Cos. and The Children’s Place, among others.

“[This year] offers some hurdles that need to be cleared,” Friedman said in a report released the day of the conference. “We will be coming off an election, we are still in Iraq [although not at war], interest rates are creeping up, there are no tax rebates and energy and food costs are higher. We believe those most at risk are the retailers targeting the lower-end consumer, as they are spending more to heat their home and drive their car, [which will have] a greater impact on disposable income.”

This story first appeared in the October 25, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Similar takes on the business climate came up during Financo Inc.’s Merchandising Equity Investors Conference, also held on Thursday. Gilbert Harrison, chairman and founder of Financo, moderated a panel of industry veterans that tackled issues including the impact of a quota-free China and Wal-Mart, the luxury boom, changing demographics and the squeeze on the middle market.

The panelists were Maggie Gilliam, president of Gilliam & Co., Harold Kahn, former chairman and chief executive officer of Macy’s East, Arthur Martinez, former chairman and ceo of Sears, Roebuck & Co., and David Tracy, former president of Fieldcrest Mills and vice chairman of J.P. Stevens.

Harrison kicked off the discussion by noting how consumer spending has gone through several ups and downs this year, and how rising fuel costs affect spending. “Despite the negative forces, I think it will be a strong Christmas,” Harrison said.

Still, there are concerns. Gilliam said the uncertainty over the election is affecting consumer spending. But she expected this to be cleared up after the election. Martinez said for many retailers, the threat to strong sales this holiday is rising fuel costs. He expected there to be some sticker shock as consumers face higher home heating bills.

Meanwhile, Martinez’s former company had some bumps on Wall Street last week. Shares of Sears plunged 13.8 percent in the week to $32.52 from $37.72 in the prior week after reporting Thursday third-quarter results that swung to a loss from a profit. The company cut its fourth-quarter and full-year forecasts.

In other earnings news, Unifi Inc. reported a net loss of $22.6 million in its first quarter, as costs related to the closing of an Irish plant offset the effects of 10 percent sales growth.

The loss worked out to 41 cents a diluted share and included $21.3 million in charges compared with a $4.6 million net loss a year earlier. Sales were $180.2 million in the quarter ended Sept. 26 compared with $163.7 million a year earlier.