RELUCTANT CONSUMERS WAIT FOR MORE SALES, BUT LUXURY GOODS OK

Byline: Sharon Edelson

NEW YORK — The capricious nature of the holiday shopping season continued last week with frigid air in the Midwest and a weekend snowstorm in the Northeast keeping scores of shoppers at home.
With only 13 days left until Christmas and seven days until Hanukkah, stores are still trying to ignite sales and are clinging to the hope that as the season nears its close, shoppers will rush to make last-minute purchases.
Department stores are seen faring better than specialty stores this year due to their advertising clout and wider range of offerings. However, analysts are concerned that price promoting will cut into everybody’s profits.
“Every time a retailer runs a sale, the consumer response is intense,” said Walter Loeb, president of Loeb & Associates. “As result, the end [of the season] will be very violent with markdowns to stimulate consumer buying. Consumers are holding back, and, like Pavlov’s dog, we’ve trained them to wait for sales.
“The inventories basically were in line at the beginning of the month and are now starting to balloon because everything is below plan,” Loeb said. Loeb suggested a round of markdowns this week, depending on consumer spending the early part of the week.
“Last week was slightly below our expectations,” said Carey Watson, senior vice president of marketing of Burdines. “We were disappointed after Thanksgiving and probably were a little bit concerned about the first two weeks of December.
In general, consumers continue to be drawn to status items, such as cashmere and other luxury fibers, high-end labels such as Chanel, Prada and Feraggamo, and fine jewelry. Distinctive gifts, like python leather pants, that cannot be found everywhere, are striking a chord, according to Charivari.
“In women’s apparel, anything status and anything that has an active end-use, is selling,” Burdine’s Watson said. “A hot resource for us is I.N.C., the private label.
“Calvin Klein is absolutely terrific,” Watson said, adding that anything with the designer’s name, including CK, is selling well. “I don’t think accessories and fragrance are doing as well as the other areas mentioned.”
Saks Fifth Avenue “significantly beat last year in week two of December, by over 20 percent, and that was about eight points better than our plan,” said Philip Miller, chairman and chief executive officer. The bad weather softened the weekend figures a bit, he added.
Miller said Saks is seeing a “very good response to our resort deliveries, particularly in ready-to-wear and somewhat in accessories and shoes, especially in terms of color.”
The momentum of luxury goods seems to be “fueled by the stock market, which has created $1.4 trillion of new wealth this year,” Miller said. “People are saying that five percent of that money will be spent on new cars, vacations and luxury goods. The affluent customer who has been in the market is feeling pretty flush right now, and that’s helping us. The disparity between the affluent and middle market customer may be more pronounced this year.”
Bloomingdale’s picked up steam last week, and a source said it had its biggest day ever Wednesday, running 30 percent ahead on a comparable-store basis due to a private shopping night held chainwide. The event was repeated the next night.
Michael Gould, chairman and ceo, declined to confirm the figure but said, “We had a good feeling going into the weekend,” due to the events, which he said produced much buying at regular prices. Unfortunately, the snowstorm Saturday hurt branches in New Jersey, Westchester and Philadelphia, while the 59th Street flagship and Florida stores bested last year’s figures, Gould said. “It wasn’t a colossal setback — just a little stumble,” he said.
Barneys New York president Charles Bunstine said the chain was affected by the snowstorm last weekend but has been running 12 percent ahead on a comp-store basis since August. He attributed the gains to “currency of inventory and effectively transitioning over half of the inventory into spring and resort as opposed to being dependent on sales” of winter goods.
At Charivari, same-store sales are running about 10 percent ahead of last year, according to Barbara Weiser, executive vice president.
“The emphasis for Christmas seems to be on luxury goods,” Weiser said, echoing a now a familiar refrain. “Prada continues to be extremely important. I’m almost out of the tight stretch pants and cashmere wrap sweaters. Those have been outstanding.”
Leathers have also been strong at Charivari, including python leather pants, priced at $2,400, from Carpe Diem, an Italian manufacturer. Lainy Keogh’s Irish hand-knit sweater coats in chenille and cashmere, priced from $1,500 to $2,500, are also bestsellers.
“Instead of spending $5,000 or $6,000, our customers are spending $3,500 this year,” said Michelle Escobar, manager of The Gazebo in Dallas. “Women are not buying as much for themselves right now. Every customer we call says, ‘We’ll see you after Christmas.”‘
There are some strong selling items, however, including a Donna Karan Essentials coat, Michael Kors’s reversible shearling coat in chocolate brown, Giorgio Armani skiwear, Devon Page McLarty jewelry and velvet robes with shawls by Ann Gish.
Retail analysts are saying department stores will be the winners this Christmas “particularly because they are selling not only apparel and accessories but soft home,” Loeb said. “The discounters may come roaring back because the full Saturday and Sunday of selling prior to Christmas may be a big plus for them. They may come back with strong sales results despite the negative results they have had in the last couple of weeks.”
At Target, the discount division of Dayton Hudson Corp., sales were below plan last week, according to a spokeswoman. Target has projected a same-store sales increase in the mid single-digit range for the holiday season.
Soft categories included men’s and women apparel and electronics, while automotive, consumables and health-care merchandise sold well.
Conway, a Manhattan-based discounter, said strong sales early last week helped the 18-unit chain pull out a solid gain for the week despite the snowstorm, according to Stephan Bassett, vice president and director of marketing.
Top-selling items included bubble coats for men and women, children’s wear and anything fleece.
Toys were a standout at Kmart, but despite a new television ad campaign featuring Rosie O’Donnell and Penney Marshall, sales of apparel and overall business were not up to expectations last week.
“I would characterize sales overall as being a little slower than we would like to see,” a spokesman said. “The company has certainly been aggressively seeking to drive sales. What we’re seeing in terms of relative sluggishness is consistent with the industry.”
Kmart expects same-store sales to “continue the kind of trends we’ve seen for the year to date,” the spokesman said. The chain has posted same-store gains in the 4 to 5 percent range for two months.
Snow and frigid temperatures dealt a heavy blow to Carson, Pirie, Scott in Wisconsin last week.
“We were kind of out of business on Friday and Saturday,” said Ed Carroll, executive vice president. “Everything dropped below zero and the wind chill factor was from 30 to 40 degrees below. The snow accumulation was not as big as the week before, but the fact that it was so frigid cut off business on Friday night and Saturday morning.
Bad weekend weather also hurt J.C. Penney Co. last week, with sales down at least 3 to 5 percent.
“We had a tough weekend,” said Barger Tygart, president and chief operating officer, citing a blizzard in Buffalo, the Midwest chill and even unseasonably cold conditions in parts of the Southwest, including Texas. “There were some really tough business situations.” He said stores in warmer climates mostly met plan.
“Apparel took the biggest blow,” Tygart said. “Women’s and men’s took the biggest hits. Juniors, jeans, both branded and private-label, did pretty well. Nonseasonal items like jewelry were not as hard hit.”
At Sears, Roebuck & Co., bitter cold temperatures had “some effect on Saturday sales in the Northeast and North Central regions of the country,” said a spokeswoman. Nonetheless, “Sales are meeting our expectations and sales for the week were ahead of 1994. We are on track for the holiday season.
“It continues to be a very home-oriented holiday with a focus on practical and quality gifts for the home,” the spokeswoman said.
Despite bad weather, Henri Bendel was “very pleased with the weekend’s performance,” according to Philip Monaghan, vice president of marketing. “Even in Boston and Chicago, where the weather was bad, we still saw traffic in the stores.”
Apparel specialty chains are widely predicted to be the losers this year by retail analysts. But the Gap may rise above the fray. It’s been running image advertising for the flagship division and a promotional blitz for its Old Navy Clothing Co.
“Old Navy is doing well with their special of the week promotion,” Loeb said. “Last week they ran a full-page ad in New York. I’ve never seen a specialty store doing print media to that extent.”
“The women’s business has just been fantastic,” said a manager of an Old Navy location in Sterling, Va., a suburb of Washington.
Some recent top sellers include angora-blend sweaters for $28, merino wool turtlenecks for $22, rayon dresses, skirts and palazzo pants for $34 to $38, denim dresses and jumpers for $29, wide-legged jeans for $28 and denim fashion vests for $19.50, the manager said.
At the Warner Bros. Studio Store on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, lines have been forming on weekend mornings before the store is open. Bestsellers include Tweetie and Taz nightshirts, a two-piece flannel pajama set, watches and a striped dog sweater, which is sold out.

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