NEW YORK — All signs point to a healthy holiday season.

Shoppers mobbed stores around the country last weekend, but the retail trade actually started picking up earlier in the week due to rampant pre-Thanksgiving price breaks, colder weather, extended operating hours and a pent-up demand for fashion.

“This spells a very good Christmas — a record Christmas,” said Philip Miller, chairman and chief executive officer of Saks Fifth Avenue. “There’s a general feeling of confidence and well being. The only thing that could get us in trouble is severe weather on peak weekends.”

“There seems to be a real turn on the part of customers buying apparel,” said Tom Gould, chairman and ceo of Younkers Inc. “We had a terrific performance the day before and after Thanksgiving, and Saturday. Coats made a strong comeback, as the weather finally got cold, and gloves and sweaters are finally selling.”

Stores are generally predicting around 6 percent sales gains for the season and will benefit this year by having an extra Saturday for shopping. Christmas falls on a Sunday, while last year, it fell on a Saturday.

A highly-confident Miller said Saks is running much higher than a year ago, reporting comparable-store sales 16.5 percent ahead for November and 18 percent ahead Friday and Saturday.

Among the stronger areas, he cited intimate apparel, St. John Knits merchandise, handbags, large sizes and fragrances, including Jean Paul Gaultier, Eau D’Issey, Yves Saint Laurent’s Champagne and Annick Goutal. Designer and private label sportswear and fine jewelry were also strong, but fashion jewelry fell short.

In addition, Saks staged a chainwide event for its customers who charge at least $3,000 a year in the third week of the month, offering merchandise rebates based on dollars purchased.

Miller noted that November 1993 was not a strong period, though sales did rise “a couple of points.”

At Bergdorf Goodman, “We had an unbelievably great reaction to higher priced merchandise,” said Stephen Elkin, chairman and ceo. “The enthusiasm and the traffic is there.”

He said customers were seeking unusual items, including rare scarves of cashmere made from the Ibex goat of Tibet that sell for $1,500 to $3,000 at the store.

According to a survey of 26 regional malls around the country by the International Council of Shopping Centers, retail sales at specialty stores rose 9 percent on Friday from a year ago, and were led by jewelry and home furnishings.

Typically, retailers rake in roughly 25 percent of their annual volume and 40 percent of the profits from Thanksgiving to Christmas. The post-Thanksgiving weekend is important, though in the past two years it’s become less crucial. Retailers now seek to spread the business through the week, and in many cases run pre-Thanksgiving promotions or notify charge customers of markdowns in advance of newspaper advertising after the holiday.

“We start our post-Thanksgiving event the Tuesday before the holiday,” said Stanton Bluestone, chairman and ceo of Carson Pirie & Scott, by notifying charge customers of 25 to 30 percent savings on outerwear, sportswear and other areas before the holiday. “We’ve had a lot of interest among consumers Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving.”

Bluestone observed that Thanksgiving may be the most crowded weekend for shopping, “but not necessarily the biggest buying weekend.” He said, “The day before Christmas and the Saturday before that are bigger.”

He said sales last week rose in the mid-single digits. Sources in the Midwest placed Carson’s business ahead 5 to 6 percent.

“It was the most competitive pre-season I have ever seen,” said Bluestone. The rest of the season, he predicted, will be more promotional than last year. “There’s a lot of advertising out there by all of our competitors — and us.”

“Thanksgiving is important but not nearly as important as the week before Christmas,” said Myron Ullman, chairman and ceo of Macy’s, which plans to do $400 million in volume that week, compared to $387 million last year. The R.H. Macy department store group was up 7 percent last week, slightly above the 5 to 6 percent planned for Christmas season, Ullman said. He declined to specify Friday’s and Saturday’s figures, but he said they fell in line with the week’s, and some promotional activity was shifted earlier in the week from a year ago.

Ullman said Macy’s best performing areas last week were men’s wear, up 14 percent; cosmetics, up 8 percent; fine jewelry, 11 percent; coats 20 percent. Sportswear was up 6 percent, with wool and cashmere sweaters, flannel shirts and sleepwear particularly strong. Christmas trim and housewares had strong starts for the season. However, lingerie, shoes, juniors, domestics and floor coverings were weak.

Macy’s West was about as strong as Macy’s East, with business in Los Angeles stronger than San Francisco.

At Carson’s, leading areas were misses’ sportswear and petites, Jones New York and Liz Claiborne merchandise, cashmere sweaters, velour coordinates, brushed ribbed tops and thermal tops, and denims — particularly from Guess, Girbaud, Lee and Levi’s — casual and office casual look, wrinkle-free shirts and pants.

Rob Bernard, president of the J. Crew Group, which operates 29 stores, said, “We are looking at the entire month of November being up significantly. The weekend was up in the low double digits.”

The cold weather has spurred sales of outerwear, gloves and flannel shirts and sleepwear at many stores, and J. Crew hopes to meet its goal of selling 10,000 wool sock hats, priced at $28, from August through December.

“It should be a very good knit and sweater season,” Bernard said.

“The weather is a real factor,” said Carson’s Bluestone. “There was a time when customers anticipated seasonal changes. Today, they don’t anticipate — they react, apparently after the weather changes.”

Sears, Roebuck & Co. reported “a solid Thanksgiving weekend and its strongest in recent years,” said John H. Costello, senior executive vice president of marketing. Big sellers included Craftsman tools, big screen TVs, computers, jewelry, fragrances, robes and women’s casual wear.

“It’s a Christmas where people are interested in practical items and a little luxury,” he said.

Unlike other stores, Sears promoted Thanksgiving savings after the holiday, though a “customer appreciation sales” ran the weekend before Thanksgiving, offering 10 to 50 percent off selected items in the store.

“We really launched Thanksgiving on Friday morning,” he said.

He said sales were “well-balanced” across the country, but the Northeast and North Central regions were slightly better. Michael Gould, chairman and ceo of Bloomingdale’s, said the chain ran about 11 to 12 percent ahead for November and slightly under that for last weekend.

“We don’t hype the business on Friday the way a lot of other retailers do,” Gould said. Leading areas were cosmetics, men’s, home, bridge sportswear, fine jewelry.
“Coats were way down, but we made our month,” he said.

Early bird specials on Friday drove sales at department stores and specialty stores in the Southwest. Merchants observed that a lot of women appeared to be shopping for themselves instead of for gifts, picking up promotionally priced fall eveningwear and sportswear.

At Neiman Marcus, where holiday sales got off to a fast start, luxury items drove business. “We are ahead of last year, and last year we had a stellar year, so we are very pleased,” said Janet Gurwitch, executive vice president of women’s merchandising. “It’s a good precursor that we had such a good weekend.”

Top performers last weekend were leather handbags by Chanel, Prada, Ferragamo, Bottega Veneta and Judith Leiber; fine jewelry and David Yurman twisted cable jewelry; fragrances — especially Boucheron — custom-packaged in baskets; Waterford and Baccarat crystal; and men’s designer ties.

Evening looks and extras were important, including dresses, black jet jewelry, handbags and tuxedo shirts.

The one soft area was coats and outerwear, which Gurwitch blamed on unusually warm weather.

J.C. Penney Co.’s tactic of opening at 7:30 a.m. Friday and lopping 10 percent off all promotionally priced merchandise for the first three hours seemed to have paid off.

Sales rocketed ahead 38 percent Friday and jumped 15 percent Saturday at the Penney’s in Glendale Galleria, in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale. Top sellers included women’s sweaters, hosiery, fine jewelry, sleepwear and robes and men’s flannel shirts.

Penney’s in Vista Ridge Mall in Lewisville, a Dallas suburb, achieved a 26 percent gain for the two days. “We opened at 7:30 with door busters, and we had people lined up at the door at 7 a.m., so it was very successful,” observed Randy Anderson, merchandise manager for women’s sportswear at the store. “They were pouring in here all day Friday.”

Sales beat projections at Penney’s in Woodfield Mall in suburban Chicago and in Oak Park Mall in suburban Kansas City.

Accente, a Houston-based chain of 13 women’s specialty stores in the Southeast and Southwest, achieved a 10 to 12 percent gain. Strongest categories were beaded evening dresses and separates, short and sexy dresses, holiday novelty jewelry and holiday novelty sweaters.

Lester Melnick, a three-unit women’s specialty store in Dallas, moved a lot of markdowns by opening at 8 a.m. Friday and offering deep discounts throughout the morning. “We cleared a lot of bridge and designer sportswear, which is good for us,” said Lester Melnick, owner. “We also sold about 30 leather coats ranging from $300 to $700, and about 70 to 90 holiday velour sets priced from $79 to $139.”

Sales were ahead 13 percent at Stanley Korshak, a high-end Dallas specialty store. President Crawford Brock was disappointed with the results. “It really was not a lot of gift buying; it was primarily sale customers shopping for themselves,” he observed. “Jackets and sweaters were big, Calvin Klein was driven by markdowns, Moschino and Complice did business, and handbags and small leather goods.” Sales at Woodward & Lothrop department stores in Washington and its John Wanamaker division in Philadelphia were up in the “solid mid-single digits,” while women’s sportswear sales saw a “significant double-digit increase,” said Robert B. Mang, chairman and ceo.
Mang said November sales have left him more optimistic about Christmas. “We planned a low single-digit increase, but I think we’ll beat that,” he said. Washington’s two Saks Jandel designer specialty stores are expecting sales increases of 10 and 15 percent this December, said Peter Marx, vice president. He characterized sales on Friday and Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend as on plan, with particular strength seen in fur. In Atlanta, malls were packed. Sue Carpenter, marketing director of Cumberland Mall, said traffic was up 5,000 to 15,000 people on Friday over their 85,000 estimate and that business should be up 5 to 10 percent for the season.

The crowds worked against Isaacson’s, a better store at Phipps Plaza, according to Louise Bernard, owner. “There was so much traffic that the really better customer wasn’t there,” she said. “The people [who were there] were making Christmas wishes, but they weren’t buying much.”

Russell Stravitz, chairman and ceo of Rich’s, said, “Apparel was not great in 1993, but this year it has been very good all year. The customer is more interested in fashion that is more wearable, and knitwear has done well.”

Selling at McRae’s was broad-based in women’s, but weekend wear, cosmetics and denim led the business. Christmas-motif items also were strong.

Isaacson’s Louise Bernard said that, while her Friday sales were even with a year ago, she has planned a 5 to 6 six percent increase for the season. Customers this weekend were buying just about anything marked down.

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