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Better weather and consumers getting more serious about buying gifts gave a modest lift to retailers last week —though not enough to ease the season’s uncertainty.

This story first appeared in the December 16, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Worries revolve around difficulty selling women’s apparel, how margins will play out, and whether unplanned-for promotions will be required if a big enough last-minute Christmas rush doesn’t materialize. While stores last week did seem to slip out of the “lull” seen since the weekend after Thanksgiving, the outlook on holiday sales remains unchanged, with expectations of low-single-digit sales gains of around 2 or 3 percent.

“Everybody is still very concerned,” said David Jaffe, president and chief executive officer of the Ascena Retail Group Inc., which operates Dress Barn, Maurices, Catherines, Lane Bryant and Justice. “The customer is being thoughtful about where she wants to spend her money. She knows she can get deals online and wait out the stores for the big promotions.”

Asked about last week’s business, Jaffe said it was “a little bit of a mix for us. Traffic has been steady but not spectacular. We’ve seen the women’s brands performing a little bit better and the kids’ brand still challenged. The good news is we didn’t have the big storm we had last year. That certainly helped things. In general, when [customers] come in, they are shopping. They are definitely looking for a deal and really focused more on fashion than core products — something they don’t have in their closet and can get a deal on.…We may see a strong finish,” Jaffe said. “I don’t see us going crazy on promotions. Our inventories are controlled.”

“We know the fourth quarter is going to be highly competitive,” said Randi Sonenshein, senior vice president of finance and strategy at Stage Stores in Houston. “We are going to lean in to the drivers in our business that were important in the third quarter — cosmetics, the relaunch of home, the trends in athletic and wellness areas.”

“Traffic was down a little bit, not a lot. Seven to 8 percent for the whole week, 2 or 3 percent over the weekend,” said one ceo of a national specialty chain, who requested anonymity. “Sunday was a good day. Everybody is coming in looking for deals. Online was great last week, as high as 30 percent,” though returns, free shipping and marketing costs will bring profits down, the ceo added. Asked why women’s apparel isn’t selling, he said, “Tech is great, women’s is not. Women are buying leggings with a top over it, expensive handbags and expensive shoes. Cocktail dresses are OK, but people are dressing up less, dressing simpler.”

“The lull ended on-time — this past Friday,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners. “This past weekend, traditionally the third-biggest of the two-month holiday season, retail traffic was up about 5 percent, year-over-year, and sales were up about 3 to 4 percent this weekend, due to heavy promos.”

“Last week was a bit of relief. Business improved toward the end of the week. It doesn’t seem to be tanking,” said Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at Kurt Salmon. “I don’t think anyone planned great business after the extended Black Friday,” he said, referring to all the Black Friday promotions that retailers offered days or weeks before the day itself. “Everyone is gearing up for the final week. Price incentives will be excellent. Saturday will vie with Black Friday to be the biggest day of the year.”

Clutches, boots, tech accessories such as iPhone wallets, gift cards, quilted jackets, activewear, mixed-metal necklaces, earrings, sweaters, jewelry, Xbox One, “Frozen” toys and electronics were among the items and categories that have done well.

According to a report issued Monday by Morgan Stanley Research, a later Hanukkah [Dec. 16 versus Nov. 27 last year] “likely contributed to a steady build over week two of December.” The report indicated “electronics and appliances, restaurants, home improvement and health and personal care continue to deliver outsized growth compared to clothing retailers and department stores.”

“New York has not been that great. It’s not horrible, business-wise, but traffic was pretty light last week,” said Jim Turner, a partner in Elaine Turner, the accessories, footwear and jewelry firm with eight stores, including one on Madison Avenue and 82nd Street. His stores in Texas are performing better, though overall the group is more promotional than a year ago, said Turner, whose company is based in Houston.

Not all is bad. Online sales continue to have double-digit increases. According to Britt Beemer, chairman and ceo of America’s Research Group, “The number of people online is not up a lot, but people online are buying more. Retailers are doing a better job selling their base of customers, versus selling new shoppers, for the Christmas season.”

In another sign of the growing popularity of online shopping, the National Retail Federation plans to release another consumer holiday survey on Wednesday, which will disclose that half of those polled plan to do the remainder of their holiday shopping online.

Brick-and-mortar comparisons should also be helped by last year’s depressed results due to a snowstorm that hit on the weekend before Christmas.

However, AccuWeather reported Monday that as many as three storms with snow, ice, rain and thunderstorms may affect areas from the South Central states to the Northeast through the weekend and Christmas.

The NRF’s survey could also add to the general uncertainty as it’s expected to disclose that more shopping has been done at this point of the season compared with last year.

Beemer thinks that discounts offered last week by retailers did little to inspire shopping. Those offering “up to” 50 percent off had better shift to 50 percent off — period — with another 10 percent thrown in, he said. “The consumer is waiting in a big, big way to see bigger discounts,” Beemer told WWD.

ARG’s Christmas Shopping Forecast, involving 1,000 telephone interviews with consumers conducted Dec. 12 to 14, found that 41.2 percent of consumers did not shop last weekend, versus 28.2 percent last year. “A lot of consumers were quite upset with the advertising. They’re waiting for bigger discounts.”

The portion of shoppers using credit cards more than they planned is way down this year, to 34.5 percent from 56 percent last year. “Shoppers are extremely conservative and cautious this season,” said Beemer. “They are spending their money only after careful consideration.”

“The question of the season now is whether retailers will offer deals to draw consumers to stores before Christmas; and the many gift-card holders back to stores right after Christmas. They will need to offer much bigger bargains to get the consumer’s attention. The consumer is spending less and there are fewer shoppers, but at least with the right deals the consumer will be in the store.” He described mall traffic overall as “very anemic.”

However, General Growth Properties reported “overall pretty strong traffic,” with Oakbrook Center in Chicago up 9 percent, RiverTown Crossings outside Grand Rapids, Mich., up about the same, and the Market Place mall in Champaign, Ill., up 3 percent. “I’m not saying we don’t have properties trending down, but the average overall is pretty strong,” said Scott Morey, executive vice president of marketing, experience and technology, at GGP.

Higher-priced retailers are also seeing decent luxury sales. “We’re already up for December pretty significantly, so I’m delighted with that,” said Connie Sigel, owner of the upscale Elements boutique in Dallas.

She attributed the increase partly to a merchandise remix that eliminated lower-priced goods like T-shirts and beefed up the inventory of more special items. Elements’ top sellers for self purchase this season are leather jackets, including Veda styles retailing around $800 to $900 and detailed fashion looks by Valery Kovalska selling at $2,000 and higher. The most popular gifts have been monogram-able suede and leather fold-over clutches by Clare V. at $220 and Pamela Love’s holiday fashion jewelry collection, which is priced for less than $250.

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