SALES ENERGY LACKING AS YULE NEARS

Byline: David Moin / With contributions from Kristin Young, Los Angeles / Georgia Lee, Atlanta / Holly Haber, Dallas / Anamaria Wilson, New York

NEW YORK — Don’t read too much into last week’s pickup.
That what’s retailers warned Monday, after reporting some overdue sales momentum, spurred by the earlier Chanukah, colder weather and an outpouring of “friends-and-family” price promotions.
For several, it felt a little like Black Friday again.
Business met expectations in many cases, though those expectations can only be characterized as ultraconservative. There’s nothing changed in the country’s state of affairs to spark a return to normal holiday consumer spending, so some retailers, particularly the more expensive ones, have taken up the battle cry, “bring on spring.” “Last week was all right — not terrific — but it was on plan,” said J.C. Penney Co.’s Vanessa Castagna, executive vice president and president and chief operating officer for stores, catalog and Internet. “Two important weeks are ahead of us and we have a lot of promotional activities planned.”
The company’s plan calls for a low-single-digit increase for the stores, while the catalog is on its way to a 20 percent decline. Penney’s strongest categories last week were housewares and gifts, including cosmetics, jewelry and colorful sweaters and cardigans. Juniors, career and intimate apparel have been strong all season.
“No question, we benefited from the earlier Chanukah, and because it was a little bit cooler. But we still had a great day on Friday, when it was 60 degrees,” said Michael Gould, chairman and chief executive officer of Bloomingdale’s. “We had a good week — our best week in months.
“That doesn’t indicate anything more than we had a good week. It doesn’t indicate a trend. The same problems are still there,” he added, citing the lack of tourism nationwide, the economy, people’s insecurities about jobs and the war in Afghanistan.
Overall, Bloomingdale’s business was “above plan,” for the week, he said.
Friends-and-family promotions ran rampant. Most offered 25 percent to 30 percent off all goods, even merchandise that was already on sale. Designers, discounters, department stores, mass brands and specialty chains all got in the act, including Kate Spade, Brooks Bros., Donna Karan, Ann Taylor Loft, Benetton, French Connection, Kenneth Cole, Esprit, Foot Locker, Diesel, Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s.
Stores offered shoppers the discount even if they didn’t carry the friends-and-family promotional invitation with them into the store.
If it wasn’t the friends-and-family approach, stores had other price breaks last week, like the Gap offering 30 percent off full-priced merchandise and 15 percent off promotional and sale-priced merchandise.
The Victoria’s Secret holiday sale and clearance book offered as much as $150 off a $500 purchase. Charlotte Russe offered 30 percent off, and Abercrombie & Fitch distributed $15 gift certificates for every $75 purchase.
Brooks Bros. chief executive officer Joseph Gromek reported “some build in the momentum, but not nearly enough to get back to levels of the past,” with business still single-digits behind — which is an improvement. He said no-iron all-cotton shirts are selling strong, as are sweaters, which are quite promotional. “All the cold-weather business is very difficult,” Gromek said. “There wasn’t enough momentum to move the needle dramatically. Business continues to be difficult. We are not experiencing the natural build that one gets at this time of the year.”
The Brooks Bros. experience reflected that of others in the specialty sector. The International Council of Shopping Centers said sales at specialty stores in malls declined 4.6 percent last week, and are down 3.2 percent from Nov. 23 to Dec. 9. Apparel sales dropped 5.7 last week, footwear, dropped 4.5 percent, home was up 1.2 percent, while jewelry was down 13 percent. The ICSC report includes sales from more than 4,000 specialty stores in 80 regional malls, and does not include anchor stores.
Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of Jeffrey stores, said: “Traffic was slow, but the numbers were there. On Sunday, we actually did $18,000 more than last year, same day.”
Among the better sellers were a red leather coat from Jil Sander, at $2,600, and a cotton drawstring-waist skirt from Gucci, $415. Kalinsky is expecting a strong season for Yves Saint Laurent as well. “People are wanting to see anything from Saint Laurent that’s brand new.”
Hirshleifer’s in the Americana shopping center in Manhasset, N.Y., reported strength in business from Thursday through Sunday. “We were very busy selling gifts like accessories, handbags, wallets and small leather goods,” said Shelley Hirshleifer, vice president. She said there are certain customers that, were it not for Sept. 11, would spend at least a few days in the city shopping, but are doing more shopping on Long Island, and her store is benefiting as a result.
Some top sellers include the Chanel coin bag, priced $1,285, and any of the Gucci logo bags, which start at $595. “We’re pretty much sold out of the Tod’s fall bags, which start at about $900,” said Hirshleifer.
“Retailers reported traffic was definitely up this weekend over the prior. It’s definitely building, and strong promotional sales continue,” said Karen MacDonald, director of communications for Taubman Centers. “From apparel to restaurants to jewelry, it continues to be extremely promotional, but the apparel business got a boost from the cold snap this weekend. Jewelry started to kick in, with many jewelry stores very promotional. Electronics continued to do well.”
“Retailers are all saying weekends are strong, while weekdays are still a bit off, hurting the sales plan,” added MacDonald.
Among Taubman’s malls, the Dolphin Mall outlet center in Miami reported tourism was about 60 percent of where it would normally be; Lake Forest Center in Gaithersburg, Md., reported 19 stores offered buy-one-get-one-free or a percent off in all categories, and another 13 stores offered gift certificates with $50 purchases.
Taubman’s Stamford Town Center reported Saturday was stronger than Black Friday.
The Falls, another Taubman property in south Miami, said weekend traffic was strong. A spokeswoman from The Falls said Ann Taylor there posted good numbers for the week, but disappointing sales over the weekend, while Chico’s FAS was up 25 percent for the week.
Traffic counts were down over the weekend at Goody’s, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based moderate specialty chain. Juniors and misses’ were the strongest-performing areas, said a spokeswoman. In misses’, sweaters, casual-related separates and wovens were bestsellers, and in juniors, denim continues to be strong.
Ken Downing, vice president of public relations at Neiman Marcus, said: “We are on track to the adjusted plan for the season. Denim continues to perform, as do boots. One very encouraging sign is customers are really responding to new resort goods that are coming into the stores. We are so encouraged by that. A lot of navy and white and resort shoes are selling. The weather is getting cooler and customers are buying open shoes. Go figure.” Neiman’s did not run a special sale last week, just its typical end-of-season clearance.
In California, cold weather and lower fuel prices have released some expendable income, according to Jeremiah Sullivan, chairman and ceo of Macy’s West. “There are also a lot of transplants from California who are canceling vacations and that’s helping us in the fourth quarter,” said Sullivan. “They may be spending some of that money on having a big Christmas.”
Sullivan said fine jewelry is keeping its pace; while sweaters, outerwear, home and men’s wear improved.
“It’s been no secret that this has not been anything but a poor year,” said Sullivan. “Our business up until the day before Thanksgiving was way below expectations. But starting the day after Thanksgiving, our business has become very good.”
At Mervyn’s, based in Hayward, Calif., the strongest categories are jewelry, home, juniors and activewear, according to a spokeswoman. On the weak side are shoes, intimate apparel, misses’ and wear-to-work. Target Corp., Mervyn’s parent, expects December will bring a flat-to-a-slight increase in same-store sales at the division.
“There’s definitely a holiday spirit in the air, but it took a while,” noted Elisa Bruley, owner of Elisa B. in Pasadena, Calif., a small specialty boutique that carries Catherine Malandrino, Diane Von Furstenberg and Seven. Dresses, sweaters and jewelry are her top categories.
“People went to the malls first and checked out the discounters,” said Bruley. “I’d have to say my Thanksgiving weekend was a little disappointing but business has picked up. We’re up about 20 percent over last year.”

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