NEW YORK — Retailers wrapped up the holiday season on a disappointing but not disastrous note, in many cases falling short of their goals despite an extra selling day and a sales surge around Thanksgiving.
On the day after Christmas, it seemed most store executives wished they were back in November, when they raked in big gains, particularly in the second half of the month. But, many indicated, that momentum was not carried into December.
As Stanton Bluestone, president
and chief executive officer of Carson, Pirie, Scott, said, “We came out OK, but it wasn’t what we thought it would be.”
Like most retailers, Carson’s had projected a mid-single-digit sales increase for the season, but its final result will be slightly below that.
“The disappointment is that we didn’t achieve our target,” Bluestone said. “But to have a reasonably good increase on top of last year’s 6.7 percent gain is still pretty good.”
“I don’t think it was the best of seasons,” added Stephen Elkin, chairman and ceo of Bergdorf Goodman. “It was far from the worst.” “It’s been a real push for business,” said a New York-based retailer. “Some stores may have down double digits in apparel. Markdowns were enormous and some came in with heavy stocks.”
This week, retailers will continue to press for business as they start liquidating Christmas merchandise and layer on more markdowns. On Monday, Bloomingdale’s 59th Street flagship was running 80 percent ahead in the early afternoon, according to David Fisher, senior vice president and general manager of the store. “The traffic is fantastic,” Fisher noted.
Bloomingdale’s took an additional 20 to 50 percent off on selected items Monday, while Saks Fifth Avenue broke with 25 percent off all clearance merchandise, and J. Crew stores launched markdowns of 20 to 50 percent off certain items. According to several leading retailers:
l Jewelry, fragrances, men’s wear, casualwear, trim-a-tree, big-screen TVs, computer peripherals and electronics were the best categories.
l Promotions were as steep as ever but failed to inspire consumers — who were as picky as ever.
l Business was very good Friday but not strong enough to generate the late Christmas shopping surge many hoped for.
For a handful of stores — including Carson, Pirie, Scott; Woodward & Lothrop and J.C. Penney Co. — apparel outperformed other areas of the store. In most stores, however, the opposite was the case. Sears, Roebuck & Co. reported sales at or above expectations. According to John H. Costello, senior executive vice president for marketing, there is a “good chance Sears will outperform the industry” this season.
Sears, which reported a 13 percent same-store sales increase last December, should report another monthly gain this season, Costello said. though he declined to specify the increase.
Bestsellers at Sears included computers, large-screen televisions, Craftsman tools and fine jewelry. Women’s sweaters and dresses and men’s casualwear and denim were leading apparel areas.
Costello said Sears’ sales were helped by “the strongest Christmas marketing effort in our history.” It included a beefed-up television campaign and a coordinated plan of in-store promotions. The markdowns hit at various stages of the season and ranged from 30 to 50 percent off on fine jewelry to 25 percent off sleepwear and robes.
“We had an exceedingly strong November, and December was good, but a tad under plan,” said Philip Miller, Saks Fifth Avenue chairman and ceo.
Overall, however, Saks’ made its plan for the season, an aggressive 12 percent ahead from the last two weeks of November to Christmas on a comparable-store basis, Miller said.
The extra selling day this year made a big difference for Saks. It lifted the chain from 9 to 12 percent ahead, Miller said.
Profits should also be on plan, Miller added, noting that the chain was no more promotional than a year ago. Leading areas were St. John Knits and designer sportswear, Salon Z large sizes, private label sportswear — particularly cashmeres — footwear, handbags, fragrances, cosmetics and handbags. Outerwear finished up strong, Miller added. Dresses, fashion jewelry and cold weather accessories were disappointing.
Bloomingdale’s flagship had a high single-digit increase for the month and was a little bit off plan. “The expectancy in the plan really came as a result of a strong November,” which ran around 15 percent ahead at the 59th Street store, Fisher said.
The store benefited from heavy tourist traffic, a better inventory position on key items, including candy and private label cashmere sweaters, and an outstanding performance by men’s wear, the store’s strongest area.
Other leading areas: ready-to-wear, accessories, coats, bridge, swimwear, fragrances and cosmetics. Standouts included the CK One fragrance and Anne Klein boxed jewelry.
Bergdorf’s Elkin characterized Christmas as “OK” and said the store cautiously entered the season with less inventory than a year ago. He cited some “very healthy pockets” of business, including men’s wear, women’s accessories and decorative home goods, but ready-to-wear was “somewhat softer than hoped.”
He expects the store to achieve its plan for December, but did not specify. J. Crew also said it managed inventories better, entering the season with 25 percent less merchandise. Last year, J. Crew was “terribly overstocked,” according to Rob Bernard, president. The reduced inventories should translate to a better bottom line, he said.
“November was very strong for us, with an 18 percent comparable-store increase,” said Bernard, but in December the gains declined, though the business still ended up 12 to 13 percent ahead and four points above plan.
Bernard said mail order was up more than 30 percent in December due to expanded women’s apparel, accessory and shoe assortments.
At Conway Stores, an 18-store discounter in New York City, sales were very good, said Jeff Cohen, vice president. “We hit our projections,” he said, but declined to be specific. “The customer is as picky as ever,” he said. “That’s another reason we did so well.”
At Neiman Marcus, sales for the final week and the season to date were on plan, said Janet Gurwitch, executive vice president. She declined to specify results. Neiman’s stores in California and Las Vegas performed better than the retailer’s other units, she said.
Neiman’s women’s division also was on target, Gurwitch said. Among the bestsellers were resort apparel, casual wear, Judith Leiber handbags, legwear, including opaque tights and novelty socks, cleavage-enhancing bras and tops, cashmere robes, mufflers and coats, and semiprecious and fine jewelry.
J.C. Penney Co. said overall sales increased at least 5 percent both during the week before Christmas and for the holiday season.
The women’s apparel and cosmetics divisions were showing larger gains and probably will finish the holidays with at least an 8 percent increase compared with last year, said W. Barger Tygart, senior executive vice president and director of merchandising and support services.
“We had an extremely good week right through Saturday because of the additional shopping day,” he added.
Tygart said Penney’s had strong sales in women’s casual wear, fine jewelry, cosmetics, jeans, lingerie and innerwear, particularly cleavage-enhancing bras.
At Carson’s, the biggest day of the season was Friday, but Bluestone said the final week was “slightly short” of plan.
One bright spot, however, was apparel, which, he said outperformed other areas. Sales of misses’ sportswear, dresses, suits and even outerwear — which got stronger toward the middle of December — were good, Bluestone said. Rugged or outdoors items and casualwear in fleece and denim were “very strong” for both women’s and men’s, he said. “Anything in flannel sold well,” he said.
Bluestone said the mild weather this year, interest rate increases and widespread promotions were among the factors that dampened holiday sales. “We as retailers became promotional much too early,” he said. “The customer became in control and told us how much they were going to buy and when they were going to buy.”
Robert Mang, chairman and ceo, Woodward & Lothrop, Washington, said sales were “flat to slightly behind” last season. Women’s apparel sales, however, were strong.
“The first two weeks of December were disappointing and the last two weeks were OK,” he said. “The apparel business was a pleasant surprise.”
Mang said most women’s categories posted single-digit sales increases, but some hot sellers, such as related separates and moderate sportswear, posted double-digit increases over last season.
This was due in part, he said, to the retailer’s decision to increase Christmas inventory by 25 percent. Among the labels that moved quickly were Norton McNaughton and Rafaella.
In California, the final week’s sales did not give retailers the boost they had expected, but some stores still managed to top the mid-single digit increases seen elsewhere in the country.
Gottschalks, based in Fresno, said same-store sales rose 3 percent the week before Christmas.
Bestselling items at Gottschalks included toys, which were up almost 35 percent, foundations, up 19.5 percent, and coats, which showed a 20 percent sales increase, Joe Levy, chairman and ceo, said. Juniors was a weak spot, with a 6.6 percent sales decline for the month through Christmas. Levy attributed part of the decline to juniors shopping in the petite department instead.
At Theodore, a six-unit chain based in Los Angeles, sales for the final week were flat, and the full month’s results are expected to increase between 3 and 5 percent.
“Christmas happened in the middle of the month for us,” owner Herb Fink said. “We did not see a regular customer in the last 10 days. There was never that great holiday enthusiasm.”
Cashmere private label sportswear items, priced from $200 to $500, were among the bestsellers at Theodore. The Malibu store reported strong sales, while volume in Beverly Hills was soft, which Fink attributed to the arrival of Barneys New York and the liquidation sale at I. Magnin.
In the Southeast, retailers said Friday was the day the shoppers turned out in huge numbers, but traffic on Saturday was not as great as some expected. Retailers also expected big crowds Monday for exchanges and post-Christmas sales.
Hot items for the season included knit separates and tops, denim, and sweaters. Lingerie, especially foundations and bodywear, also posted increases in stores.
Donald Van Suilichem, senior vice president and director of marketing and promotions at Rich’s, said that Saturday exceeded plan, but Friday was exceptional.
“I think a lot of offices were out and people figured that was when to [finish shopping],” Van Suilichem said.
Rich’s ended with a “very strong performance” for the season and exceeded plan for the month, he said. The strong women’s wear areas were ready-to-wear, sportswear and dresses, shoes and intimate apparel. Mary Glasgow, general manager for Jacobson’s Naples, Fla., store, said sales storewide were strong and increases were in the double-digit range. Men’s apparel sold a little better than women’s, she said.
Bestsellers for women included bridge sportswear, St. John Knit separates and dresses, and two fragrances that the store launched in the fall — Angel and Dolce & Gabbana. Lingerie finished up about even, with foundations and bodywear outperforming sleepwear, she said.

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