SALES UP SLIGHTLY, BUT RETAIL ANXIETY MOUNTS AS FINAL WEEK BEGINS

NEW YORK — Another Christmas cliffhanger.
That’s what’s in store for retailers as the clock ticks away.
Stores are coming up short with only a week till Christmas, and with forecasts of up to eight inches of snow in the New York area for today, some executives are wondering if there’s enough time to make up lost ground.
On Monday, retailers around the country cited a slight pickup over the weekend and a continuation of the major trends — weak sportswear and strong luxury goods sales. Malls were generally busy, though not all the time. Snowstorms and wet roads deterred from the malls, particularly on Saturday.
According to the International Council of Shopping Centers’ database of 4,500 specialty stores in 80 regional malls, sales were down 1.9 percent for the week ended Sunday. Sales since the day after Thanksgiving are down 1.3 percent. Apparel sales fell 2.6 percent for the week and since Thanksgiving have dropped 3.8 percent.
Dayton Hudson Corp. said sales at all three of its divisions — Mervyn’s, Target and DH department stores — fell below plan last week. Target, the discount division, had weak sales in the South and Southeast, while Midwest units showed some strength, according to a spokeswoman.
Ames Department Stores hopes it can finish the season even with last year. “We had the best three days of the month so far last Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which were extremely strong,” Joseph R. Ettore, president and chief executive officer, said. “My concern now is that we’re getting terrible indications about the weather for the next two days, and we don’t have much time to make things up.”
“I think this weekend got a little better,” said Carey Watson, senior vice president of marketing at Burdines, but he added that Burdines will end the season slightly behind plan.
“Everybody thinks they have more time to shop because Christmas falls on a Monday this year,” he said.
At Bradlees, sales have been “spotty” this season and below last year’s same-store results, said Peter Thorner, president.
“We had a weak Saturday but a strong Sunday,” he said. “It’s hard to say how much was weather-related.” Thursday was the worst day of the week, he said, due to the snowstorm.
At Wal-Mart Stores, sales at the discount units and clubs fell below expectations last week despite a slight pickup toward the end of the week, according to an analyst who requested anonymity. The retailer expects a monthly same-store sales gain in the low-to-mid-single digits at its discount stores and a 3 percent decline at Sam’s Clubs, the analyst said.
Except for women’s sweaters and holiday-theme merchandise, apparel sales continued to run “slightly below expectations” last week, the analyst said. Best-selling categories at Wal-Mart included trim-a-tree, household basics, candy, snacks and health and beauty care.
Wal-Mart did not return phone calls.
Business at Neiman Marcus is ahead of last year’s month to date, with on-going strength in luxury goods, a spokeswoman said. Bestsellers last week included eveningwear separates and velvets, especially from Carmen Marc Valvo, resort shift dresses and A-line optic dresses, Michael Simon sweaters, stuffed animals, handbags by Chanel, Prada, Barry Kieselstein-Cord, Judith Leiber and Veneta by Bottega Veneta. “Status items and luxury labels are still the ones that are doing well,” the Neiman’s spokeswoman said.
“The weekend was very good,” said Philip Miller, chairman and ceo Saks Fifth Avenue. “Friday through Sunday we were up from last year in the high teens in comparable-store sales, which is slightly ahead of our plan. We have a very good head of steam going into the last week of Christmas, with a major caveat being what Mother Nature is going to do.
At Saks, designer apparel has been “sensational,” Miller said, citing Chanel, Prada, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and St. John as standouts. Salon Z and private label apparel are also strong.
“The cosmetics business is on fire for us,” Miller said, citing EsteA Lauder, Bobbie Brown, Trish MacEvoy and MAC. David Yurman jewelry and estate jewelry has been “terrfic,” Miller said. Strength in fashion jewelry is coming from designer-inspired lines such as St. John.
Best-selling women’s merchandise at Bradlees included dresses, hosiery and intimate apparel, while “things like thermal underwear took off last week,” when the weather turned colder, Thorner said. “If the snowstorm hits and knocks out Wednesday and part of Thursday, then Friday, Saturday and probably Sunday will be sheer madness,” he said.
He said softlines are generally outperforming hardlines this year, which he attributed to trimming some hardlines, such as toys and sporting goods.
For the season, Ettore said Ames same-store sales are off but in line with competitors in the Northeast. Total apparel sales are off about 5 percent for the month.
“Those last couple of days could bring us pretty close to last year; that’s what I am hoping for,” he said. “We’re not down enough that we can’t make it up, especially with the extra shopping day.”
In California, rain and cold weather fueled a mild turnaround in the holiday sales for Gottschalks, Fresno. The first weekly comp-store gain — 3 percent — was cited by Joe Levy, chairman and ceo.
Levy said customers are finally getting in the holiday spirit.
“The local papers have convinced consumers there are going to be a lot of bargains if they wait, and now they’re ready,” Levy said.
Bright spots at Gottschalks include misses’ career, dresses and “anything with a Calvin Klein on it,” especially junior denim jeans. Home categories such as sheets and pillows, table linens and china also are strong.
At Theodore, a five-unit Los Angeles specialty chain, sales for the week were flat. Herb Fink, owner, said he feels positive about business his inventories are very low. “We’re not overstocked, so we have less promotional merchandise that we have to sell off-price,” he said.
In Chicago, North Michigan Avenue was flooded with shoppers Saturday who responded to the nearly 40 degree temperature, a marked departure from the prior weekend’s cold snap. It made for some frenzied catch-up gift shopping.
At Marshall Field’s, Tracy Carmen shopped Esprit racks, admitting she had just started on her list. “The stores are open until 9 p.m.,” she said, vowing to do all her buying this weekend. She called it, “power shopping.”
Students Elizabeth Abbott and Nicole Easley were admiring a satin shirt by Mirror with the hope of receiving “preppy shirts” and corduroy jeans for Christmas. “We’re trying not to shop for ourselves, but it’s too tempting,” Abbott said. “Forget the gifts.”
Linda Gillespie, a fitness trainer, shopped for jewelry for some of the 10 people on her list for whom she budgeted $75 each. She had already bought a frame at Bendel’s and a men’s down jacket at Bloomingdale’s.
“I can’t deal with pressure, so I keep a list from last year and put it in the computer so I remember what people need,” she said. “It helps the anxiety.”
At Bloomingdale’s, business was brisk in handbags, accessories and cosmetics. But intimate apparel was relatively quiet, which made shopper Rick Sewell happy. “That’s the way shopping should be: quick and painless,” said Sewell, who bought Natori bras for his girlfriend.
In Dallas, there were long lines at NorthPark Center on Saturday, and in J.C. Penney, fragrance, cosmetics, fashion jewelry and Arizona jeans were the most crowded sections of the store. Shoppers seemed harried and few wore smiles, but many were lifted by the penguins and ducks frolicking in a fountain in front of the store. Mavis Nash came to shop at Penney’s because she had accidentally thrown away her daughter’s holiday dress and heavy windbreaker.
“We just moved here from San Diego, and I had done most of my Christmas shopping there,” she said. “Thank God there’s a great Penney’s here. I sure hope I can find what I’m looking for. If not, I’m not going to worry. Texas weather is more like California than I realized, and I don’t know if that glitzy dress would have gone over here or not with the young set.”
At the other end of the mall, Neiman Marcus was filled with customers, but most seemed short on joie de vivre. Well-coiffed women in plush furs and men in toasty corduroy searched for high-end gifts.
In Atlanta, the two premiere malls, Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza, seemed bustling with consumers generally carrying a bag or two. Most bags spotted were from The Gap, Rich’s, Banana Republic, Crate & Barrel and Victoria’s Secret. There were also lots of people resting on couches that Lenox Square placed all over the mall.
Stacy Bonner of Marietta was shopping at Phipps for gifts to take up to New York for the holidays. She said her Christmas budget was about the same as last year and that she bought lots of Olympic logo apparel from Rich’s.
Bonner also said she was trying to do most of her shopping during the week and avoid weekend shopping. “I dreaded coming here today. Maybe that’s why I haven’t bought anything yet,” she said.
At Lenox Square, Rodney Harris focused on getting most of his shopping done in one day and had a new strategy — gift certificates. He also stuck to the department stores and bought apparel from Rich’s, Macy’s and Neiman Marcus. He said he was surprised the mall wasn’t more crowded. “I didn’t even have trouble finding a parking space,” he said.
With 20 years of experience shopping for her children’s Christmas gifts, Debra Hiuser of Clifton, N.J., thinks she has figured out all the retail angles. She’s learned to compare the prices in all the weekly sales circulars, shop the stores frequently to check the assortments and in-store specials and wait until the final days before purchasing some key items, especially children’s apparel.
One Sunday this month, Hiuser and her 22-year-old daughter, Connie Carnivale, hit Bradlees, Caldor and Kmart.
“Each one had a better sale on something we wanted,” Carnivale noted on Saturday after making a quick stop with her mother at a Caldor discount store here. With Christmas falling on a Monday, Hiuser said she expects “prices will be 50 to 70 percent off” by the weekend.
“With kids clothing, [stores] hold off cutting prices until the end,” she explained. “They know parents want to get the stuff early and then get it wrapped.”
Washington retailers reported mixed results last week. At Up Against the Wall, sales last week and weekend were up over last year, said fashion director Wendy Red. Women’s sales rose 5 percent. Women’s polyester print shirts and hip hugger or low-rise pants are hot, Red said. Up Against the Wall is looking for a good final weekend. “In the end, people always come in and buy clothing,” Red said.
At Peebles Department Stores, based in South Hill, Va., sales last week were “flat” compared to last year, a spokesman said.
“With the extra day this season, we should be up slightly,” the spokesman said. Peeble’s shoppers appear to be waiting for last-minute markdowns, he added. At Jackie Chalkley’s, a Washington boutique, sales are up over last year, said business manager Ruth Tarbell. Last weekend was especially good, she said, crediting a jeweler’s trunk show.
“The end of last week was excellent and our business was good,” said Ed Carroll, executive vice president of Carson Pirie Scott & Co. in Milwaukee. “The week in total was tough because we had a major promotional event on Wednesday, and Tuesday night we were blown away by snow and ice for the third week in a row.
“We’re still feeling that business this week will be brisk, and if Mother Nature cooperates we should have a good week,” Carroll said. But as far as the entire season, Carroll said it would be difficult to measure until after the stores close on Dec. 24.
“Last year, many retailers thought the day before Christmas Eve was going to be spectacular, but it appeared that customers had already finished their shopping,” Carroll said. “It’s especially difficult to predict the outcome in the Midwest states, where we’ve had detrimental weather conditions. We’re expecting another storm today.”
“While sales may not match the 8 percent year-to-year gain of 1994, we do expect to outperform the retail industry,” said John Costello, senior executive vice president of marketing of Sears, Roebuck & Co. “Sales for the past weekend and week were above a year ago. Obviously, the last week prior to Christmas is very important. It’s hard to predict the weather, but we think we’re well positioned with merchandise as procrastinators shift into high gear.”

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